Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanksgivng: The Forgotten Holiday?

Starting shortly after Labor Day in early September, merchants start putting out Halloween candy and decorations. It’s inevitable, though it wasn’t always the case. Used to be, they would wait until at least the first of October.

But by then, stores already have their Christmas displays in full swing, nearly three months before the actual holiday.

I guess it makes good business sense. Statistics show that merchants make far more sales in the fourth quarter than any of the other three. A few make more profit during the fourth quarter than the other three combined. So it’s only natural they would like to get an early start, right at the beginning of the quarter.

Although holiday shopping probably starts earlier now than it did years ago, early Christmas shopping isn’t exactly new. In the 1930s, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the traditional date of Thanksgiving up a week so as to increase the length of the Christmas shopping season. It had been observed as the last Thursday in November since Pres. Lincoln proclaimed it so.

The public didn’t take too kindly to Roosevelt’s capitalistic tinkering with a beloved holiday, so he had to move it back a couple of years later. In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving and that’s where it remains today.

But Thanksgiving remains almost an anonymous holiday. Unlike Halloween, Christmas, and even Easter, stores do not start putting out Thanksgiving merchandise two months early. In fact, there isn’t much Thanksgiving merchandise to sell. No presents, no baskets full of candy, no costumes to don. Thanksgiving’s biggest claim to fame is a turkey dinner and the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season.

But I guess that’s what makes it special. It has remained somewhat less commercial than most of the other holidays, though not entirely so of course. Caterers tend to do big business on that day. And, of course, the turkey and cranberry industries exist for this time of year.

Thanksgiving traditions haven’t changed much over the decades. Thanksgiving wasn’t officially observed until 1863 when Lincoln proclaimed it at the urging of lifetime Thanksgiving proponent Sarah Josepha Hale. Earlier presidents didn’t see the need to observe it at all. And one, Thomas Jefferson, even scorned the idea completely.

What we think of as the original Thanksgiving feast by the Pilgrims and Indians was actually a three-day celebration of a good harvest. It may or may not have included turkey. It most certainly didn’t include potatoes, milk, butter, baked goods, or cranberries. Pheasant, watercress, corn, venison, and lobster were on the menu, though.

Today, most families eat turkey or ham accompanied by lots of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. This is after they wake up to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the first appearance of Santa Clause. Then, they settle in with a full stomach to watch football on TV.

It’s cozy and comfortable. It’s a time for family and friends and relaxation. And it’s a time to forget you’re on a diet and just celebrate the warmth of home and family. And that doesn’t need a month of mercantile preparation.

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