Focus: The day Americans count their blessings

Family values in the US have taken a battering this year. But that won't reduce the significance of Thursday's Thanksgiving celebrations. By David Thomson

THANKSGIVING is one word in the United States, and it looms up suddenly, like an unlit ship on night's sea, on the fourth Thursday of November. So this Thursday is Thanksgiving again, nearly the last in a thousand years of American history that began with barely a million native souls scattered across the plains. Many find it the most precious day in the American year. You can hear that in the way people say "Thanksgiving". The three syllables run like the name "DiMaggio" in a radio baseball commentary, or "Sinatra" as you hear an old lady reminisce about Las Vegas in its great days.

Why is the day revered? In part it's because the occasion does come up so swiftly, knifing through the horrendous commercialisation of Hallowe'en and Christmas, festivals lost in rapacious marketing and sentimentality. Thanksgiving is the day of reckoning in the turkey industry, a holocaust for force-fed gobblers golden and trussed and bland on the loaded table. And it is the day when many people try to make and enjoy, or even swallow, pumpkin pie - one of the trickiest desserts to get right.

But Thanksgiving has no decor in the streets, no tableaux in shop windows, no songs or jingles, no cards, wrapping and fuss. No gifts, even. Rather, people seem to sense that the light and the dark, the pale sun and the fall cold, the uneasy reunion of families, and just one more year's surviving are gifts enough.

It's a brief respite. On the Friday after Thanksgiving - when few people have to work - the stores open for the biggest shopping orgy of the year. Some reckon to get all their presents that day. By the following Monday, the retail fortunes for the year can be forecast. But on the day, the Thursday, it is calm, as long as you are not still travelling to get "home" or to the place that once was home. (The Wednesday is the US's biggest air-travel day in the year.)

Families try to draw together, whereas at Christmas nowadays more and more reckon to get away - to Florida, to a big city, to the Caribbean or the ski slopes. At Thanksgiving you feel the homing urge - you move blindly to be back with those who have a duty, so it seems, both to grasp and misunderstand your travails and your joy.

THE PARTY takes many forms. In southern California or Arizona the day may be good enough for a barbecue. But in Montana, the Dakotas, and the long, grey north, there may be several feet of snow already, and the houses waiting in the dark like lanterns as you struggle through the packed silence to be there.

There's something else, a thing I noticed first in campus life. At Thanksgiving, people tend to take it upon themselves in the days beforehand to check that no one is likely to be alone. Some students can't afford the ticket home. Someone else may be lately divorced. This is a land that finds fresh ways every year of fracturing family, and renewed need for holding together. So the loners get invited in. On many Thanksgivings I recall some visitor, strangers, never seen before or again - though sometimes someone in the family ended up marrying them. And nearly always, in meeting such strangers, you get a reminder of the oddity and vagaries of America.

Thanksgiving is inherited from the New England or Puritan or colonial America of the late 17th century. It marks the end of the harvest season, a perilous accounting once, for families and communities perished in the long winters if there were not nuts, squash, corn and salted fish to last. In the iconography of Thanksgiving, there is also an attempt to see the settlers embracing the Indians, even those like Magua, from The Last of the Mohicans, who had taught them what to grow and how to store it. The Indians can only sneer now at the myth. They are no longer invited in, not even in New England, and their history is the list of betrayals that have taken their wealth, their hallowed places and their astonishing mastery of the old America.

On the other hand, just because of the extending hand of hospitality, Thanksgiving lets Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Episcopalians mingle. Even the English are welcome. It is a day when the meal table, and the impulse to gather, tame many differences and attest to the hope that this rich land can go on producing, despite what seems like a mounting proclivity for fire, flood, drought, famine or earthquake. The weather grows more frenzied, it seems. In America, you cannot help but feel the chronic raids made on nature - or forget the threat of a vengeful god.

Just as wounded families try to reassemble, so this year, more than most, Americans survey self-inflicted damage. We would prefer it if the President shut up and went away. Don't talk to us, please; don't pour the grease of that grin on Thanksgiving. And shut the whining miles of Tripp and Monica up. Send Starr to a black hole. Americans felt ashamed this year - at what leaders had done, and the mindless spasms of universal response. Yes, Bill will go, and Newt is gone - brilliant manipulators both, yet we have lost the one who believed in things beyond himself. It's as if, one cold day, politics will be just a parade of faceless stand-ins. And if the stock market has rallied lately, there are still experts who believe that a terrible and earned crash is coming. So hold on, cross your fingers, and remember how vital gambling has been in this country.

America doesn't know how to deal with Saddam or Kosovo and all the other places that most Americans couldn't find on a map. We are grateful for our burnished light, and the space where it plays - but what can we do for our diminishing education? Some people think back to the start of the American story and say that nothing can save the nation - and they mean the world - but a great crisis, far more severe than recession or famine, some immense upheaval that would remake our will and our dream. They speak of FDR, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackie Robinson - the first black baseball player in the major leagues - and Joe DiMaggio, who nearly died in early November.

But be careful with our heroes: Thomas Jefferson, we must now concede, had sex with a teenage slave. And that is rape, no matter his prose style or the practical elegance of his house, Monticello.

YES, AMERICA is naive, and so young still - so don't be startled or too dismayed if it handles itself like Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy days. Don't trust it to save the world - or expect it to bring about destruction. America is - still - the place where strangers want to be, to come to. Maybe they're suckers. America makes fools of so many of us. Still, Thanksgiving is the day when we try to believe in the great hope and venture of being American.

It's worth coming to America, on your own even, just to get invited in somewhere for Thanksgiving. We'll spare you the turkey - try dark Sonoma lamb or Michigan wild duck instead. You'll see families struggling with the unsaid and the unsayable. But you'll see true reunions, people who see their parents or their children only once a year. You might meet the old codger of Vermont, 91, lean and dry as a stick; and if you were to say to him, "So, Mr Clay, you've lived all your life in Vermont?", he'd wait a beat and tell you: "Not yet."

You'll see the new children born since last Thanksgiving, and their casual, mindless grace. Here comes your plate: the meat, with stuffing, cranberry sauce, wild rice, spinach and nuts and sweet potato. And Mr Clay likes you after all: he's getting out the special bourbon.

So it's a great day in a lost mood in America, and Mr Clay isn't the only nonagenarian to be thankful for. There are Alistair Cooke, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan and Katharine Hepburn: and which of those four do you think was truly born in the USA? Don't worry; don't ask. We love them all. Thanksgiving - and is there any more lamb?

WHAT'S ON THE TABLE

If you're lucky you may still see wild turkeys in Massachusetts. Few will find them on their Thanksgiving Day tables. Everyone will have the same trimmings: stuffing made of bread crumbs and giblets, with anchovies, prunes or sweet chestnuts added.

Sweet potatoes, baked or mashed, are standard. New England blue bloods take them straight, everyone else tops theirs with melted marshmallows. And then there's cranberry sauce - derived from the cranberry bogs of southern New Jersey.

To top it off, pie. Apple pie for those who have lost the tradition. Pecan pie for those who want tradition but not the real thing. Pumpkin for the purists. It all adds up to the only meal of the year that Americans take time over.

Peter Koenig

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