Why do we overeat and watch football on a Thursday?
Of course, it’s because that’s what the pilgrims did. Right? This time next week all good Americans will follow the traditions set forth by the early settlers. Well, not exactly. Only a scant record exists of that first Thanksgiving in 1691. Clearer documentation shows the second official day of giving thanks fell in July of 1693. For a time the various colonies set aside official days, some on Monday, some on Wednesday. History suggests it was Jonathan Belcher, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later governor of New Jersey, who influenced congress and President Washington to set the date on a Thursday in November. But the tradition of the fourth Thursday came later.
Washington’s Thanksgiving fell out of style. Other presidents set aside special days, but the day and even the month varied. President Lincoln brought back the official day of the last Thursday in November. But in 1939, that Thursday was the last day of the month. President Roosevelt, fearing a shortened holiday shopping season at a time when economic stimulation was vital, moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday. For the next two years, parts of the country held to the former tradition, while other parts celebrated with the president on the new day. After much congressional confusion (imagine that) the official day was set not as the last Thursday, but as the fourth Thursday. This kept Thanksgiving from falling on the last day of November. Congress must have been looking into the future. We wouldn’t want all those Black Friday bargainers waiting until the first of December to get the shopping season started.
Here in my house, we’re not much into football. We are very much into deep-fried turkey, sweet potato casserole, any other casserole with crunchy stuff on top, southern dressing, homemade cranberry sauce, any kind of pie other than pumpkin (which is about as popular as football), and Swiss-onion bread. If we visit another household of family or friends, we might watch the game on TV for a while, and one or two among us might eat a piece of pumpkin pie. I will bring along the Swiss-onion bread. Most are unfamiliar with the custom of baking this special treat. The pilgrims didn’t start it. Roosevelt never proclaimed it the official bread of the holiday. I’m the one who made it a tradition. In 1991, I declared it to be forever known as Thanksgiving Bread.
That year, the day before Mother’s Day, I was on my way to my aunt’s house for a special family dinner. My husband was coming later. My children were with me, along with a big pan of Swiss-onion bread, when a speeding drunk driver hit us head on. I don’t remember the accident. I don’t even remember baking the bread. A few days later, when my husband went to see the totaled car at the salvage yard, he found raccoons eating the doughy goodness in the backseat.
The months that followed were tumultuous, but filled with dependence on God a new depth of prayer. My little boy’s lacerated liver healed. My little girl’s concussion and broken leg mended. My recovery from badly damaged knees, a fractured skull, and plastic surgery to repair my face took a bit longer. Personality changes from the head injury left me confused at first, and then unsure of myself. By November, I was grateful for the changes inside me, for the scars that meant I had survived, and mostly for the spared lives of my children.
It was while preparing for the day of thanks that I thought to bake the bread again. I renamed it Thanksgiving Bread and I’ve served it at every Thanksgiving dinner since. It helps me remember to be truly grateful.
Tradition should always perpetuate a clear recollection of importance and meaning. We can only imagine what customs those first brave settlers and their new native friends shared with one another. For every variation of Thanksgiving Day in the history of our country, a series of traditions have been either established or forgotten. If no special day existed at all, if no turkey found its way to the table, if no game was played, if no Black Friday flyer came in the mail, if no bread was baked, would we remember to be thankful? My answer is yes. Not to sound un-American, but nevermind the colonial proclamations and the acts of Congress. I’d rather be grateful every day, not just when I bake my special bread and recollect what it signifies. Though I am most certainly thankful for that. My ultimate gratitude—daily and eternally— is for the One who sustains me. He is the Bread of Life.
Next Thursday, put down the potato peeler and the turkey baster for a moment. Turn off the game for a while. And just be grateful. On Thanksgiving Day I’ll post a short devotional, along with a prayer of thanksgiving.
A bag of frozen Parker House rolls (the kind that rise)
2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
1 cup chopped scallions
½ cup of melted margarine or butter
Thaw the rolls and allow them to double in size. Drizzle a tablespoon of the margarine in the bottom of a large, deep baking pan and drop in just a bit of cheese and scallions. Arrange half the rolls in the pan in a single layer. Drizzle on some more margarine. Add about two-thirds of the cheese and scallions. Add a second layer of rolls, placing them of slightly askew on top of the first layer. Pour on the rest of the margarine, and then layer on the cheese and scallions. Bake at 350⁰ for about half an hour or until brown on top. Serve warm, give thanks, enjoy.