Thanksgiving is a holiday stirring mixed emotions. We rejoice in friends and family, mourn the memory of those no longer at the table. We endure the tiresome bores at the table because they qualify as family. Not all the turkeys at table are full of egg-bread stuffing.
We bless the new babes, admire the growth of the tweens and indulge the adolescents who think they shock us with their discovery that adults belong to an inferior breed. We welcome college friends whose families live far away and invite those in our community without kith and kin to share a meal.
We pray for our fighting men and women in a faraway alien place who put their lives at risk to protect our security while giving others a chance to enjoy the liberty of free men. We praise all who contribute to our bounty through physical labor and the hard work of the heart, mind and spirit.
Thanksgiving is a potpourri of traditions mixing memory and desire, great appetites for food and conversation, reflection and indigestion. More than any other holiday, it embraces Proustian images of the remembrance of things past. The aroma of a turkey baking envelops not only the house, but the soul as well.
Most of us know the origin of the holiday, when the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock celebrated their first year's harvest with Indian friends, giving thanks for the abundance of the new land. But few of us know many of the details of our forefathers' lives or the different traditions that merged to make it a national holiday of spiritual joy and secular satisfaction.
Our focus is on food, family and friends and the thanks that accompany giving; few of us spend much time thinking about the historical antecedents of the holiday.
It might be interesting to ask those at the table if anyone knows the name of a single passenger on the Mayflower. Four presidents are linked to a single family tree. Both Roosevelts and Bush father and son are descended from John Howland, a Pilgrim who fell off the Mayflower in a storm and was saved by a sailor's rope. Five other presidents trace their ancestry to the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims: John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield.
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, half were Pilgrims who later came to be known as the Saints and the other half were seekers of fortune in the New World, who came to be called Strangers. The Mayflower Compact, a blueprint for autonomous government, prevented mutiny on the high seas between the two groups and later became a reference point for the Founding Fathers as they wrote the Constitution.
While children still study these facts in school (we can hope), many of us who once studied them have forgotten the richness of detail. That's too bad. The continuing saga of "Thanksgevynge" is a rich one, enough to enliven any conversation for the holiday.
Edward Bleier, a first-generation American, whose parents did not come over on the Mayflower, but whose family went from "peasant penury to middle class" in one generation, enjoyed an improvised Thanksgiving as a child. He grew up wanting to celebrate it in a more meaningful way.
He has written a charming little book called "The Thanksgiving Ceremony," in which he outlines a participatory ceremony for guests around the table to read out loud - singly and in unison - from the history and poetry that accompanies the holiday. It's patterned like a miniature Haggadah, the book used by Jews to celebrate the Passover Seder.
A leader calls together the dinner guests with a toast and then calls on others to chant or read passages to celebrate the early history of the nation. Some are excerpts from prayers, poems and stories of gratitude from around the world. Examples:
"Gratitude is the sign of noble souls."(Aesop's Fables)
"If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." (Meister Eckehart, Christian mystic)
"What I kept, I lost. What I spent, I had. What I gave, I have." (Persian Proverb)
There's more, from works as diverse as the Psalms, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Albert Einstein and Anne Frank. There are the lyrics of "Amazing Grace," "America the Beautiful" and "Shine on Harvest Moon," all reflecting the language and eloquence of the faith of our fathers. All give new meaning to "talking turkey."
So pass the cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with the marshmallows on top. Happy Thanksgiving.