Why can’t Thanksgiving happen on Friday?
Yes, I know: tradition. The Pilgrims pushed back from the table, satiated with viands and heavy breads and rabbit pudding, adjusted the buckles on their hats, and said, “It’s been a marvelous interval of gratitude, but we must now retire, for tomorrow we return to our labors, as we must.”
Whereupon Dame Persock said, “Work if you must, John Parsons, but I intend to rise at dawn to hie me to the stores, that I may partake of the fine deals on lamp wicks and sewing needles. Why, ’tis Black Friday.”
Whereupon someone else rose and accused Dame Persock of consorting with the devil, what with all this talk of Black days and deals, and the meal ended in acrimony. Just like today, if someone brings up politics.
When I was a kid, the legend was fact: The Pilgrims sent out invitations to dinner, guests showed up with a relish tray, everyone made merry and feasted, and then the menfolk went into a hut and told stories about the Lions of Detroit who ran around with an oddly shaped ball.
But we’ve no idea when the first Thanksgiving really took place. It could have been a Monday in September. And there’s no evidence they ate turkey. They could have been eating lobster on the second Monday in October, or gnawing on deer shanks the first Friday in December. We just don’t know.
The holiday falls in November because in 1789, George Washington issued a decree calling on everyone to celebrate “a public day of thanksgiving” on Nov. 26, a Thursday. I hate to go against the Father of Our Country, especially since he had wooden teeth and probably had to ingest a turkey smoothie, but six years later he also declared a day of thanksgiving to be held on Feb. 19, 1795. Granted, that also was a Thursday, but if the November part is malleable, surely the day could change a little.
Ensuing presidents were at their whim to declare a thanksgiving — or not, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, who apparently hated football — until Abraham Lincoln made it a standing federal holiday in 1863.
Still, it was not until 1939 that FDR issued a proclamation anchoring it on November’s fourth Thursday. Some people called it the “Democrat Thanksgiving” as opposed to the old “Republican Thanksgiving.” In an attempt to put an end to political arguments around the turkey — we all know how well that worked out — Congress made the fourth-Thursday date a matter of federal law in 1941. And that’s how it’s been ever since.
Perhaps we have not challenged the timing because a Thursday holiday is a bomb that creates a crater a day wide in either direction.
People drift away from work on Wednesday afternoon to get a start on meal prep — “These Tater Tots aren’t going to defrost themselves, you know! Well, actually they will, if I leave them out, but I’d better get home anyway.”
On Friday, people are still working a poultry-bolus through their system, and just want to stay home, inert.
But why not move the holiday to Friday? People wouldn’t have to burn an extra day off from work if they travel. And work wouldn’t have that peculiar what-are-we-doing-here? feel you get right after a holiday. It makes sense.
But it wouldn’t feel right. Tradition is what binds our years together, and we dissolve those bonds at our peril. That’s why I will start the dinner in the traditional manner: Don my George Washington hat (the one with the buckle) and say, “Four score and seven years ago,” and so on. It’s not correct, but it’s tradition.