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A reflective Thanksgiving, and a necessary one

For so long, we’ve been divided. ¶ Our struggling economy has separated rich from poor, job-holders from job-seekers, the optimistic from those without hope. ¶ Our politics, capped by a strident election season, divided us to the left and right. ¶ On top of this, we feel bruised by the world around us. ¶ Hurricane Sandy. The looming “fiscal cliff.” Gas and grocery prices. And on and on. ¶ “It’s a worrisome feeling,” Kevin Schmitt, a West Seneca resident, said of the mood this late November. “There’s a lot to worry about.” ¶ And so, we come once more to Thanksgiving. ¶ This most American of holidays, initiated and nurtured in our earliest days as a people, made permanent by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War as a way to unify a bloodied and soul-weary nation around a common theme – we are Americans, let us give thanks for that and for our mutual blessings – may seem antiquated in a 21st-century world of iPads and smartphones, Facebook and Twitter.

Yet, to many, Thanksgiving’s virtues and values have become – for all of that stubborn old-fashionedness – more important nowadays than ever.

“There’s so many things that could drag you down,” said Sandy Schultz, of Olean. “The world is going so fast. It’s hard to be thankful, sometimes. But we need to be thankful.”

In short: When the world around you is changing in ways you cannot predict or plan for, you may find some consolation in the traditions your family and your countrymen, have long held dear.

“Thanksgiving is important,” affirmed Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward Mallinckrodt University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, a member of the university’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, and an expert on holidays and their changes over time. “It takes its place as a very unifying holiday.”

Let’s be clear on this point: We could use a little unity, these days.

Many of us – setting the table today with a grandmother’s china, perhaps, or making the stuffing according to an old family recipe – seem to realize that, deep down, even amid the busy and clamorous lives we lead.

That is why many people in Western New York called themselves a little bit concerned, a few weeks ago, when Christmas music began blaring from several local radio stations on a 24-hour-a-day basis, and Christmas decorations and sales filled shops and malls across the region.

“We’ve totally lost Thanksgiving,” said Mary Ellen Rzepka, a West Seneca mom who planned to host a holiday table of a dozen relatives today.

“I [feel like I] went from Halloween – and the minute you walk into these stores, you think Christmas,” said Rzepka, outside a Southtowns mall earlier this week. “My kids won’t even listen to the Christmas music till after Thanksgiving. They’ve got sense.”

Thanksgiving has its roots in the beginnings of our nation’s history.

From childhood textbooks, we know the stories – about how the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to give thanks for their harvest and their blessings in the New World.

But many might not recognize that Thanksgiving as we know it is actually more of a creation of the mid-1800s, said Schmidt, who has written books including “Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.”

“It’s kind of a mid-Victorian invention,” said Schmidt. “It became especially important in the lead-up to the Civil War and after the Civil War, as a holiday that people imagine can be unifying in some way.”

One of the prime motivators behind the formalization of Thanksgiving as a national holiday during this period was a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor at the influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years.

Hale wrote many editorials over some two decades, Schmidt said, calling on the nation’s elected leaders to make the Thanksgiving holiday both permanent and official, with a fixed date. Until that point, Thanksgiving had been celebrated largely in New England, and was held on different days from state to state.

In 1863, during the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln set a fixed date for Thanksgiving as a Thursday at the end of November. The move was seen by many as an effort to unify the country. It became the country’s third national holiday.

“By the end of the 19th century, it took on some of the overtones we associate with it – things like football,” said Schmidt. “Certainly, by 1910, it would be fully recognizable to us.”

That unifying force of the holiday is still powerful, some said.

“Everybody has their own lives, their own jobs. It’s hard to get people together,” reflected Rzepka. “For me, it’s just a time to get the family together.”

What some in Western New York worry about now is whether that American holiday is under pressure.

They are especially concerned about the fact that “Black Friday” shopping is now encroaching into Thursday’s holiday, as some retailers open as early as 8 p.m. tonight, beginning the shopping weekend earlier than ever.

“That bothers us, really,” Rzepka said. “I don’t even know if I’m going to go [Black Friday shopping] this year. I don’t want to do it – I don’t want to go out on Thanksgiving. You basically have to tell people at your house, ‘Sorry, you have to leave, I want to go shopping.’ ”

All this makes some wonder if there is some sort of larger cultural shift happening – a troubling erosion wearing away at the edges of our most beloved of American holidays.

Are we no longer unwilling to trade a night around the dinner table with our family members and friends – playing board games, drinking coffee, eating leftover turkey sandwiches – for the chance to score some early Black Friday bargains?

And, if so, what does that say about us?

Thanksgiving has been under commercial pressure before, Schmidt said. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, was criticized during his presidency for making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, instead of the last Thursday, to allow for an extra week of post-holiday shopping. Some people said Roosevelt was over-commercializing the holiday and ridiculed his idea as “Franksgiving,” Schmidt noted.

“There’s always a sense that the pressure for Christmas is starting earlier than ever,” he said. “That is not new.” But, Schmidt said, “it’s important for people to realize they still have power in this.”

“If people resist them,” he said, referring to the siren songs of the retailers, “there’s a good chance such incursions to the day itself will simply go away.”

To that end, some in Western New York said they were determined to resist those forces – at least for this year.

Much about life may change, and not always for the better, these residents said this week. But Thanksgiving 2012 must not.

“That’s not going to happen in our house,” said Schmitt, the West Seneca resident, who worked for 35 years at a paper company before being disabled by a back injury, of Thursday sale shopping. “We’re going to have Thanksgiving.”

“You may save a hundred bucks,” he said. “But you know what? Being with my kids means more than that.”