Before we get into this week’s thunking, let’s have a little history lesson: In 1863 President Lincoln wanted to give thanks for the success of the Battle of Gettysburg so he pronounced Thursday, November 26, 1863 as Thanksgiving Day. He called upon his countrypeople (that’s the inclusive form of countrymen) to set aside the last Thursday of November as a day for giving thanks and praise. From that year forward, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
Except for when, in 1939, President Roosevelt changed it to the third Thursday in November. The country was recovering from the Great Depression and he thought it would help to add a week to the shopping season to bolster the economy. Despite the effort of Roosevelt, the earlier date didn’t catch on so in 1941 Congress resolved that Thanksgiving was to be a federal holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s been that way for almost 80 years now.
The earliest date Thanksgiving can be is November 22, giving us 32 days of holiday cheer before Christmas Day arrives. The latest is November 28, allowing a mere 26 days in which to prepare for the holly jolliest day of the year. The latter is where Thanksgiving fell in 2019. This year we are partaking in the smallest number of days possible between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No wonder people had their outdoor lights up before the last float of the Macy’s parade passed by on the TV screen. So few days, so many decorations.
Oh, the outdoor decorations! Those were the days when, in the ’70s, Dad wanted to drive around after dark with all five kids and Mom in the car, to “see the lights. ” We would ooo and aaah as we passed the random string of glowing primary colors: reds, greens, yellows and blues, wrapped loosely around a treetop. Sometimes Dad would stop the car so we could behold a yard with more than one tree lit up. Those houses belonged to people who went all out, all for our enjoyment. Joy to the world!
We would return home to a single, two-foot ceramic tree with colored lights standing on a stack of thick books in our front window. Gramma D. made that white ceramic tree and every toddler born into our family has spent hours taking out and and putting back the little colored baubles that go with it. Oh Christmas tree, our little Christmas tree, how lovely are its antique branches!
Today things are different. We have become a society that thinks more is better. More lights in more colors (pink does not say Christmas in my book), more flashing, more swirling, more lit-up messages. (Like “Noel. ” Does anybody know what “Noel” means? Even “Wildcats” spelled out in purple lights appeared on one roof in my neighborhood. If that doesn’t get a person in the holiday spirit I don’t know what will.)
There’s one more decorating fad that we see pervading this special season: the novelty that will forever mark the first two decades of the 21st century and is a mockery of that Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade: more bouncy, inflatable characters on every neighborhood block. Look right and we see Santa on a tractor, Scooby with a wreath around his neck, Woody lassoing a wrapped package, Minnie with Mickey going down the chimney, Santa and a penguin under a palm tree. Look left and there’s Yoda and Olaf and Rudolph, and Snoopy in his airplane with a rotating propeller.
As a proud traditionalist, it is my personal hope that this current Christmas custom will deflate like the characters themselves when they are unplugged after everyone has gone to bed. There they lie during daylight hours, flat and lifeless, staring at the sky or with their face to the ground, looking more like trash that blew in overnight than like decorations that are blown up with the flip of the on switch.
I’m no Scrooge, and I certainly don’t want to steal Christmas a la the Grinch. It’s just that I yearn to simplify and inflatable characters aren’t part of that picture. I am focusing on appreciating the simple things about the Christmas season: the smell of gingerbread baking, the taste of homemade eggnog (it’s lighter and dare I say—refreshing, even without the rum), the glow of the old-fashioned bulbs on our tree, fewer gifts by far than ever before under the tree (we hope they’ll each have more meaning this way), the sound of the carols we grew up with (don’t worry, I won’t mention my distaste for Mariah Carey again this season), and the real pine wreath with a red bow hanging on our front door (my sister’s gift to us each year). Simple. Rich. Christmas.
Note: What is the meaning of Noel? Easy enough. It means Christmas, from the French word meaning Christmas season and probably derived from the Latin word natalis, which means birth.word natalis, which means birth.
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© 2019 Sarah Donohoe