I grew up with three siblings, and my father has three brothers. I remember Thanksgivings in the DeArmon household as big, multi-day affairs where my cousins, siblings and I ran around playing hide-and-seek while the grown-ups argued politics around the dining room table.
Once everyone was seated but before we began plating up and eating the turkey, stuffing, and rice, one of our traditions was to go around and have each family member say what they were thankful for. This exercise was done in chronological order, proceeding from the youngest person to the oldest. Adult answers were usual: “the little things,” “family and friends,” “my good stable job,” while children’s answers ran the gamut: the family pet, a favorite stuffed animal, ice cream.
Most of our extended relatives have moved beyond the D.C. area so nowadays my family’s turkey day is small and subdued. Some years I can’t even attend, because I’m traveling or scheduled to work. But my fond childhood memories endure and I still think of Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday. I like how it’s unassuming and no-frills: no showy house decorations, costumes, tinsel, twinkly lights or wrapping paper, just cooking food and spending time with loved ones.
Most every American knows that Thanksgiving commemorates a 1621 feast celebrating the harmonious partnership between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. Fast-forward to Colonial America and one of George Washington’s first acts as President: the Thanksgiving Proclamation, which designated Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day for Americans to praise God “for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us” (like, y’know, victory in the Revolutionary War).
Thanksgiving continued for years as a piecemeal holiday — various presidential administrations would decree a standalone national day while some individual states (mostly in New England) adopted it as a yearly tradition. Abraham Lincoln officially made it an annual nationwide holiday in 1863.
In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday of November to the third, in an effort to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. His decision was derisively called “Franksgiving” and universally hated. Sixteen Republican states flat-out refused to acknowledge the switch and continued to celebrate on the fourth Thursday. There was such outcry that in 1941 Franklin switched it back.
Oh, America. Even back in the golden Roosevelt era we politicized everything. I think of FDR as a hero who stewarded our country through the dark days of the Depression and World War II. But he was subject to the same vitriol, dissent and displeasure as every other political leader — over an issue that seems so quaint! I would love to trade 2021’s violent polarization over masks, vaccines and critical race theory for controversy about the timing of a measly holiday.
The passage of time puts a nice luster on all the rough edges. Take our Thanksgiving myth — there was a feast between the Wampanoag Tribe and the Pilgrims, but each had their own political and economic motivations for cooperating. And our grade-school history classes completely omit the fact that one big peaceful 1621 party was followed by centuries of war, disease, and displacement.
The same could be said for my own Thanksgiving memories, all conveniently absent of holiday stressors like travel, family arguments, a kitchen full of dirty dishes, or the chaos wrought by groups of children. This can be a difficult time of year for all sorts of reasons, but that doesn’t negate the things there are to be thankful for.
Alexandra DeArmon grew up in Frederick. She now splits her time between Maryland and Alaska. firstname.lastname@example.org.