Published in News-Gazette
Depending upon your upbringing and beliefs, three major holidays in America – Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – carry different connotations. Some people are all in. They have labeled boxes in the garage for each celebration to decorate the entire house. Their electric bill soars at Christmas. Other folks are subdued. Perhaps a Thanksgiving cornucopia on the table, a tree for Christmas, and Easter lilies in the garden. Some people do not participate at all.
For me, as a youngster growing up in Central Illinois, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were magical. My family was all in, the house filled with decorations, relatives, and food. Gargantuan amounts of fresh Deli cheeses and crisp crackers, celery with Philadelphia Cream Cheese filling, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cinnamon scented apple sauce Jello, sugared cranberry sauce, and pies of every sort. The gathering at the table, the saying of grace and the breaking of bread, part of the magic.
Even the extra-long Easter and Christmas church services were bearable, no mean trick there. Sitting still while Pastor Zimmerman made three points – always three points – my brother, Tim, and I nudging each other, counting down.
Maybe the magic came from the celebratory nature of holiday church services. The sanctuary overflowed with people wearing their “Sunday best.” Dressing up for church was expected in the 1960s and ’70s. There were no jeans, t-shirts, or tennis shoes. People ratcheted it up a notch for the holidays. At Christmas, the men and boys sported festive green and red ties, many with a rosy-cheeked Santa in his reindeer-powered sleigh. For Easter, as Judy Garland and Fred Astaire sang in “Easter Parade,” people wore their Easter bonnets, “with all the frills” upon them, the women and girls glowing rainbow-like in pastel colored dresses.
The church music was magical, too. No minor-key driven dirges of sin and remorse, chastened faces buried in hymnals. Instead, the congregation sang and smiled as one, heads up, as the organ roared and the choir belted out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” My father gently shaking his head with a hint of a grin when I altered the lyrics of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to “tried to smoke a rubber cigar, it was loaded and exploded.” The Easter service ended with the rip-roaring, “Christ is risen today, hallelujah!”
“Now that’s a crowd pleaser,” I’d tell my own kids years later.
Dad’s presence at church during the holidays was certainly a magician’s trick, as well. Dad believed in God. A WWII combat veteran, he often quipped, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” But he was not a church-goer. His preferred communion was coffee and eggs with his buddies at the diner, but he always attended church at Easter and Christmas.
Thanksgiving was magical for its ability to conjure memories without all the trappings. It was a laid-back, flannel shirt and jeans holiday. At least for us kids. Having hosted many Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter celebrations for upwards of 20 people over the past two decades, my wife, Yolanda, and I know how much work the “holidays” can entail. But at least with Thanksgiving there are no gifts to buy or eggs to hide.
I know some people object to Thanksgiving and its origins and meaning. For me, however, Thanksgiving is the most communal of holidays for Americans if we treat it as such. No religious beliefs required. No gifts expected. The only dressing up is of the turkey.
Grateful? Hungry? Pull up a chair and dig in. All are welcome. There’s magic in that.
Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is now treated liked a speed bump on the road to Christmas. Halloween has grown in popularity and folks can’t wait for the clock to strike midnight on October 31st to get out Christmas decorations. We barely finish our Thanksgiving feast before stores open and Black Friday launches the Christmas shopping frenzy.
Everything seems accelerated and too many people self-absorbed now. We rush about as if being busy is the definition of a life well-lived.
We check social media in a self-defeating competition to keep up with the Joneses. “Look at the bright lights at our house, the beautifully set table, the happy people – no one’s having more fun or has a better life than we do…Oh, oh, except maybe the Joneses. Their post is getting more likes and comments than ours.”
Holidays, whichever ones we celebrate, can still be magical if we allow them to be. A time to be grateful. To focus on family, friends, and feeding people a hearty meal, not Facebook. The breaking of bread is a great gift as we linger at the communal table, tell stories, remember loved ones, and honor the past while living in the moment.
That’s a holiday. That’s magical.