It was the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving. It should have been ours too, but in his attempt to remedy the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt moved it to late November to placate America's Chambers of Commerce begging for a full blown whistle start to the Christmas shopping season. Perhaps that's why our Thanksgiving never feels like the harvest festival it is supposed to be. The particular foods we are scheduled to celebrate--cranberries, squash, pumpkins, wild turkeys-- are already gone by. Just looking at your farmers' market tells you the corn season ended long ago.
So Americans don't fete the food supply that assures our survival. Since we no longer live off the land but just go to the supermarket to find any food we want any time we want it, we have forgotten how precious a good harvest truly is. Food is the only certainty for surviving the cold, dark time of year. For forever, abundant crops have been humanity’s most coveted prize, our supreme sign of good fortune. That's why almost every other society has some special autumn ceremony of gratitude for its stockpile of nourishment. Germany's Oktoberfest, China's Moon Festival, Poland's Doznki and Ireland's Samhain that gave us our Halloween customs.
The West's ur festival is the Hebrew Sukkot so carefully prescribed in the Bible. Sukkot, from the Hebrew word for "booths" or "huts", comes from the dictate in Exodus to celebrate the major fruit harvest. Eventually it morphed into a mandatory pilgrimage, a sort of hajj on specific days when people had to carry their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem for the High Priest to offer to God. Sukkot also fetes the Four Species or special plants: the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the palm, myrtle and willow -- all symbolic of crucial desert necessities that saved lives. In their diaspora far from the Temple, Jews used Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years their ancestors wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters and harvesting whatever they could to survive. That's why for this particular holiday, devout Jews construct in a growing field a hut or garden shelter made from gathered stalks, stems, branches, vines, leaves, fruits and flowers--all symbols of harvest. The top will be open enough to see the sky where prayers of thanks are aimed.
Wanting a sacred way to express their thanks for a harvest that sustained them, the Plymouth Pilgrims acted on the Biblical exhortation to build this harvest hut, thus launching our autumn tradition of decorating our own dooryards with cornstalks, pumpkins and wreaths of dried herbs or flowers.
It is of course likely that the Pilgrims borrowed the whole idea of honoring food from their hosts, who are definitely pictured at that first Thanksgiving. The aboriginal Americans called the gloriously bright and round full moon that follows the autumn equinox (September 21) Harvest Moon, for its appearance signaled the moment to gather together the magnificent gifts of the Great Spirit: corn, berries, beans, grains, nuts, fish, and small game. (Notice how these are our traditional Thanksgiving foods?) Having taken these gifts, Native Americans wanted to give a gift back, so they used harvest time to offer ritual praise and thanks to every living thing that had sacrificed its existence to become the food or clothing that would allow them to survive. They celebrated their good fortune with dance, drumming, games and feasting--all prelude to the big game hunt that would insure survival through the winter.
The actual first non-native Thanksgiving took place in Canada in 1578 when the English explorer Martin Frobisher arrived in Newfoundland and supposedly gave thanks to the Almighty for his safe arrival in the New World. The Canadian Thanksgiving tradition we know now began shortly after that. French settlers who came with the explorer Samuel de Champlain, brought their religious customs with them and celebrated their successive successful harvests with prayers of gratitude and feasting. They also generously shared their bounty with natives in their surround. Their heirs and communities continued this festivity on weather dependent dates between mid October and early November until 1957 when the Canadian Parliament designated the second Monday in October "a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed."
Notice, that date is now America’s Columbus Day, a lame way of marking a profound moment. Our harvest comes home, our farmers' markets shrink and shut and nobody notices. We're out to lunch at white sales and soccer games. Why should this blindness matter? Why should it matter that we have shoved ourselves out of sync with the seasons and natural scheme of things? Well, you can look at our health care mess or you can read all the studies that now confirm, as one reporter put it: "...one reason food rituals enhance flavor and enjoyment is their ability to focus people’s interest on the ensuing consumption." Then you can celebrate with a big harvest meal of your farmers' market finest to find out if that's right. Why not discover something on Columbus Day.