Why 'Giving Thanks' Means More This Year

Thanksgiving Table i i

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Larry Crowe/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Crowe/AP
Thanksgiving Table

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?

Larry Crowe/AP

Nestled into the leafy fall, Thanksgiving is about family, sharing a bountiful meal, and counting our blessings. It's a gentle holiday, less laden with memory, more-low key than Christmas, without the pressure of gift giving and the obligatory rounds of parties.

But the holiday seems different this year, as we prepare to celebrate the second Thanksgiving of the Great Recession. With the country settled into double-digit unemployment, the USDA figures that 49 million of us suffer from "food insecurity," struggling to put enough on the table. For many, the blessings are fewer to count.

Yet all around me, I see Americans embracing this Thanksgiving with a special fervor.

When I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s, we didn't much go in for Thanksgiving, which we thought of as a Yankee holiday. My mother never cooked us a Thanksgiving dinner except for one year, when my baby sister had the mumps. Despite the boiled hen with cornbread dressing, my sister was miserable. But maybe my mother understood that the family needed Thanksgiving that year.

In fact, the holiday has always been about giving thanks above all in times of adversity, from the Pilgrims' first feast in 1621 to Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of national Thanksgiving in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. It was 1941, during the calamities of the Depression and World War II, that Franklin Roosevelt and Congress standardized Thanksgiving, moving it to the day we mark now, the fourth Thursday of November. The new standard took effect one year later.

Teresa Nicholas i i

Freelance writer Teresa Nicholas has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi. Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas
Teresa Nicholas

Freelance writer Teresa Nicholas has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi.

Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas

So in this difficult year, Americans are particularly looking forward to Thanksgiving. For weeks now, newspapers and morning TV shows have been full of recipes for turkeys and tips for managing in-laws. There are great national debates going on, and not just about health care, but about whether to bake or fry the turkey, whether to stuff or cook the dressing on the side. It gives us something to take our collective mind off our problems.

I won't be home in Mississippi for Thanksgiving, where the holiday is popular now. I'll be in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, but even here our little expat community is planning their Thanksgiving dinners. The search is on for turkeys. A smoked bird from Chile, or an organic one from Guadalajara? I have a friend, Andy, who drove 50 miles to Walmart, where she found three dented turkeys in the freezer case. After a bit of haggling in Spanish, the store manager was able to locate her a non-dented 14-pounder.

But it really doesn't matter, the turkey or the other ingredients. All around town it's the same, neighbors opening their homes. Maybe, like those first Pilgrims, we realize that what's important is to share, and to give thanks for what we do have. That like other generations of Americans, and like Americans everywhere, we need Thanksgiving more in tough times than in good ones. As for me, I'm giving special thanks because my baby sister, diagnosed in May with breast cancer, has just gotten a good medical report. She'll be home in Mississippi, celebrating the day with an all-vegetarian menu.

And we are grateful.

Freelance writer Teresa Nicholas has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi.

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