Thanksgiving day is one holiday that hasn’t changed much over the years. Oh, it’s more commercialized than it was years ago and some customs have been modified, but that’s the nature of our shifting society. A sophisticated and cosmopolitan public no longer views traditional habits in the same mode as old-timers.
This is one day of the year where most Americans eat the same types of food. Turkey dominates most dinner tables. Some families will prefer venison, duck or some other specialty, but a majority stick with the traditional turkey feast.
Thanksgiving has always been a major holiday in our family. And I’m not referring to wild celebrations. Family’s can enjoy a special feast without an all-day or all-night party.
As a youngster at home, the day always started off with morning church services. I maintained the practice with my own family in later years. Even in Korea, an Army chaplain conducted services in the field.
It was in Korea where I developed a better understanding of the ecumenical movement. There weren’t enough military chaplains for each religious domination so the troops were happy to have a prayer leader no matter what faith he represented. In the absence of a chaplain, it wasn’t unusual for a devoted soldier to lead a large group of men in prayer. Soldiers will testify that an atheist never lived in a fox hole or a bunker.
Some of the more memorable Thanksgivings in adult years were spent with my wife’s parents, Earl and Lucille Harpt, in Marinette. My wife, Arlene, is the oldest of seven children, and the only girl. We would gather at the Harpt home on special holidays. When seven siblings, their spouses, and children assembling one home, the numbers at the dinner table escalate over the years. The count rises when the grandchildren, their boyfriends and girlfriends, join the feast. On top of that, some of my wife’s brothers in college would invite their friends home for the weekend if they were unable to go home for the holiday.
It wasn’t rare to tally 35 to 40 people in the Harpt home at one time. We ate in shifts. The kids were fed in the kitchen and the adults in the dining room. Some fled to the living room where the television set was located. If you didn’t like football you didn’t dare step foot in the living room. When the kids finished eating, they were sent out to play. If the weather is bad, they were sent to the spacious upstairs bedrooms to play their games or defined their turf with pillows. Their tales in later years of the fun they had their grandparents are amazing.
The women spoiled us on Thanksgiving. They not only prepared a huge feast, but they cleaned up the dinner tables and performed the voluminous amount of work that goes with pots, pans, dishes and silverware. In the absence of the dishwasher, they did the chores by hand. They enjoyed it, too, because they had more time for woman-talk. If the men needed a time out from the barrage of football games on the TV, they took a walk in the old Goodman-Sawyer Co. cedar yards along to Menominee River.
In recent years, those wonderful Thanksgiving gatherings have become more quiet. An aging flock and the younger generation locating in distant places with their own children brought change. Church in the morning still prevails in our home, and then it’s onto colorful morning parades and the diet of football games. The size of the turkey has been reduced because of the declining numbers of the table. The true purpose of the day, however, never changes.
I’m a lousy cook so the kitchen is off-limits to me. My main job is to carve the turkey. It’s traditional for the man of the house to perform this task and we’re keeping the legacy alive. I’ve never attended a culinary school, but I’m getting better at carving up a turkey. I read one time with the first man to officially slice the turkey was a hapless colonist back in 1621 when the first Thanksgiving was observed. There was a ceremony that went with the ritual but there wasn’t finesse when it came to cleave the turkey for hungry people after a day of hunting and harvesting.
I make every attempt to be more graceful the most early colonists. There are some good stories that make the rounds at this time of year about men and their responsibility at carving a turkey. I’ve found the job can become a nerve-wracking experience. My wife insists that I do it at the dinner table in front of the family. Tradition, she insists. She won’t allow me to use an electric knife like I’m able to use at Easter when slicing the ham. I only carve a big bird once every 364 days, since there is no learning curve with carving.
The menu included all of the traditional stuff about Thanksgiving. My wife does a super job in her preparations and is very understanding when it comes to football games.
The old-fashioned Thanksgiving as a child in West End were likewise special. My mother always had an exceptional feast. Her preparations were more difficult than current times because there were no freezers or refrigerators for storing food in advance. The cooking was done on a wood-fed stove.
Television was nothing more than an illusion, although radio was just beginning to invade our home. There was no local radio station and football wasn’t the king of entertainment like now. We played our kid football games on the street or a vacant lot in the neighborhood. Dinner was served promptly at noon, and then my father would take his deer rifle and head for the woods, the noon leftovers provided an evening meal.
The Thanksgivings of old will always be special for me. The traditional day is something that I can’t let go.