A Distant Third (cont.)

Last Tuesday in cycle class, pedaling through the five-minute recovery after an hour of torture, our instructor asked if we’d like a Christmas carol or two from her playlist.  The one rider with enough oxygen lashed out vehemently, “NO!  It’s too early!”  Well how about that; score a point for Thanksgiving.  The sun set on Halloween two weeks ago and mighty Christmas is already trying to muscle its way to the forefront.  But Thanksgiving has a thing or two to say first.  If you please, keep the sugar plums out of my turkey and stuffing.

In last week’s post, I compared popular aspects of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (i.e. history, music, food).  The final tally: Christmas the clear winner – no surprise – with Halloween solidly in second.  But lest we relegate Thanksgiving to the bronze medal year after year, my blog-intent is to reinvigorate America’s late-November holiday, and remind readers why Turkey Day stands on its own merits.

On that note, we’re starting November with promise.  My wife is getting endless mailbox catalogs, and I was delighted to find Williams-Sonoma’s “Thanksgiving Headquarters” edition: 180 pages of food, linens, kitchenware, and decor specifically designed for the holidays.  They even photo-profiled a barn-based “Friendsgiving” celebration in upstate New York.  Granted, the Thanksgiving section of the catalog ended on p.67, meaning the remaining 100 pages were all about Christmas.  No matter – 67 pages of Thanksgiving is impressive.  Way to go, Williams-Sonoma.

Starbucks also made a statement – albeit more feeble – putting their unique spin on Thanksgiving.  Right now, you can drive-thru and order a Turkey & Stuffing Panini (with cranberries and gravy!), perfectly nicknamed “a handheld turkey dinner”.  Then pair your panini with a Chestnut Praline Latte (“flavors of caramelized chestnuts and spices, topped with whipped cream and spiced praline crumbs”).  That combo speaks more to November than December in my book.  Not bad, Starbucks.

Retail aside, Thanksgiving plays out as more of an extended weekend than a single day.  Consider the before/after events.  Wednesday (“Thanksgiving Eve”) is routinely labeled “the single busiest travel day of the year”.  Well guess what?  It’s not.  Thanksgiving Day is the busiest travel day of the year, considering 90% of us drive our cars to the family gathering that morning.  Thanksgiving Wednesday (and Thanksgiving Sunday) only seem busiest because the chaos at the airports gets so much attention.

Now, on Turkey Day itself, besides the meal and the backyard football, we begin with the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”.  My family always seems to miss the broadcast because we’re so busy in the kitchen.  Macy’s is three hours of marching bands, dancing Rockettes, Broadway singers, flying character balloons, and – as far as I can tell – one nod to Thanksgiving (the massive turkey in the photo above).  But hang on ’til the very end of the broadcast, because… here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, wrapping up the parade the same way he’s done every year since 1924.  It’s like the Williams-Sonoma catalog – Thanksgiving on the outside but more “holiday season” in disguise.

Thanksgiving Friday is “Black”, of course – the so-called beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  We Americans spend over $50 billion that day (putting retailers “back in the black” with profits – hence the name).  It’s safe to say this bonanza of spending isn’t going away anytime soon.  By its very nature, Black Friday extinguishes Thanksgiving – almost before the pumpkin pie is served.  Black Friday sales begin as early as 5pm on Thursday evening (making the name obsolete, don’t you think?)  And if Thanksgiving isn’t early enough for you, some stores begin sales a week before Black Friday, with the teaser, “avoid the chaos of Black Friday – shop now!”  Uh, what’s the real meaning of Christmas again?

So there you have it – Christmas putting the squeeze on Thanksgiving like the Grinch on Whoville. Santa concludes the Macy’s parade at 12:00pm ET.  Christmas shopping begins five hours later.  In between, throw a meal on the table, mumble a blessing, and don’t forget to say thanks.  If we’re not careful, Thanksgiving Day will be reduced to Thanksgiving Hour.  It’s a phenomenon known as “holiday compression depression” (okay, I just made that up), but hey; it’s happened before.  In 1971, George and Abe got their standalone birthday celebrations mashed into a single holiday.  Even they feel Thanksgiving’s pain.

A Distant Third

America’s Election Day finds us one week post-Halloween, fifty days pre-Christmas, and still adjusting to that pesky hour gained from the loss of Daylight Savings Time (got all that?) Fittingly, I’m working through a small pile of candy corn and M&M’s while placing a couple of online orders for holiday gifts. And that, my friends, is the perfect lead-in to today’s topic. With Halloween fading fast as the sun, and Christmas approaching like Starbucks’ holiday cups (just when did those show up already?), where in God’s name is the love of Thanksgiving?

Of course, Thanksgiving gets steamrolled every year between the other two loudmouths – just seems the real estate on either side is getting bigger. Our neighborhood’s professional haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes opened gates in early September. Then Christmas’ onslaught of decor, music, and retail made its entrance the moment front-porch lights switched off on trick-or-treating. In short, Holiday 1 and Holiday 3 officially overlapped each other, suffocating Holiday 2 onto life support. It’s the classic case of middle-child syndrome – “exclusion caused by the more specific attention to the others”. Poor Thanksgiving.

To be fair, ranking the standard aspects of holidays puts Thanksgiving in third place in just about every category.  Let’s review a few:

ORIGIN: Halloween dates to 2,000 years ago; the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (in present-day Ireland), when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. That’s pretty cool.  Thanksgiving dates a mere 400 years, mimicking the harvest meal shared by the Wampanoag Indians and English Pilgrims. Christmas – at least to us Christians – dates over 2,000 years ago to the birth of Christ. Measured by the calendar then, Christmas (C) takes first place, Halloween (H) second, and Thanksgiving (T) a distant third.

CELEBRATION: Halloween used to be just children’s trick-or-treating. Now we’ve evolved to a month of the aforementioned haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes; then costume contests, themed drinks, and increased cover charges at the bars; and a plethora of scary movies at the theater. Thanksgiving?  One day preparing one meal to be consumed in (more or less) one hour.  Christmas has its December 25th, but it also has a season’s worth of caroling, parties, movies, concerts, parades, church services, craft shows, decorations, temporary ice-skating rinks, and on and on and on.  Again – First Place: C, Second: H, (Distant) Third: T.

MUSIC: Halloween: “Werewolves of London”, “The Time Warp”, “The Monster Mash”, “Ghostbusters”, “Thriller”. Christmas: You-pick-’em – a dozen of your favorites (from hundreds if not thousands of carols). Thanksgiving: Not one.  Not one single, solitary tune comes to mind. First Place: C, Second: H, Late-to-the-party: T.

COLORS: Halloween: Red, Orange, Yellow (and every shade in between). Thanksgiving: brown. Christmas: Red, Green, White. Let’s call it a first-place tie between C and H.  In third place (and looking awfully uncolorful): T.

APPAREL – Let’s give this category about five seconds. Halloween is all about apparel, so anything goes and everything works. Christmas allows for – at least once in the season – your Sunday best, or getting all dolled up for some special occasion. Thanksgiving? All I come up with is stretch pants to ease the digestion of the meal.  First place: H, Second place: C, Absent-From-The-Podium: T.

FOOD – Halloween brings forth every imaginable candy, with a side of bobbed apples and witch’s brew. Christmas explodes with candy canes, decorated cookies, the Grinch’s roast beast, and those wretched fruit cakes. But here comes Thanksgiving for the kill – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, dinner rolls, salads, vegetables, two-maybe-three kinds of pie, and whatever else you can cram onto the table. Assuming this carb-crazy feast is your cup of tea, Thanksgiving wins in a runaway. First place: T, Second place: C, Third Place (+ Sugar Coma): H.

Let’s tally the results.  In five of six categories, Thanksgiving gets the beat-down from Halloween and Christmas.  The mega-holidays appear to be reducing Turkey Day to a trifle.  But lest you think it’s a dying bird, I’m here to convince you Thanksgiving isn’t down for the count.  Stay tuned: there’s more to discuss about the little holiday that could.

Little Jack Horner

Behold the Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and stuffing – a meal unto itself. String beans with mushrooms, dripping in butter. Crescent rolls (because you can never have enough carbs at Thanksgiving). Every side dish imaginable, or at least enough to fill up the empty spaces on the table. And then there’s dessert. Homemade cookies and cakes. Pies galore – pumpkin, apple, and cherry. And way over in the corner – completely overlooked like a little kid begging for attention – mince pie.

71-exorbitance

I love mince pie. It’s an exorbitance of flavors, provided you like the ingredients of course: raisins, dried apples, and molasses, blended with generous helpings of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; topped off with two or three shots of brandy. For the spices alone – which were said to represent the gifts brought to Jesus by the three kings – mince pie is sometimes referred to as Christmas Pie.  But early Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas, so mince pie made it to the Thanksgiving table instead.

Mince pie has a colorful history. The Brits get credit for the pie itself, but the Middle East gets credit for the fruits and spices, discovered by European crusaders on their travels and returned to their various homelands. Mince pie was originally a dinner pie – meat included – with the spices added to hide the sometimes “off” taste of meat without refrigeration. Over time the meat was left out entirely so only the fruit and spices remained. The pie literally morphed from savory to sweet (and from “mincemeat” to just “mince”).  At one time mince pie was banned from dinner tables, frowned on as a religious symbol by Puritan authorities.  I’m glad I don’t live in a time of Puritan authorities.

If you’re looking to salvage a few calories as you roam the Thanksgiving buffet, don’t go anywhere near mince pie.  Were you to consume the whole pie you’d be talking 3,600 calories, and that doesn’t even include the essential topper of brandied cream (“hard sauce”).  Were you to only eat the filling you’d still take in almost 400 grams of carbohydrate and 250 grams of sugar.  But you’d take in no fat and almost no protein.  It’s like consuming a concrete block.  If someone threw you in the East River after a generous helping of mince pie you’d sink to the bottom in nothing flat.

More trivia about mince pie:

  1. An eating competition was held in 2006 where the winning contestant ate 46 mince pies (not 46 whole pies but rather the smaller tarts you see in the photo above).
  2. Mince pies were originally coffin-shaped (not round), but they just called them “rectangular” because coffins hadn’t been invented yet.
  3. Early versions of mince pie contained a total of thirteen ingredients – symbols of Christ and his disciples.  Another reason those pesky Puritans considered the pie “forbidden fruit”.

Making mince pie is quite the chore.  Take a pie shell, dump in a jar of mince filling, top with another pie shell, and bake at 425 degrees for thirty minutes.  To be honest, the hardest part of making mince pie is finding the jar of mince.  Your local supermarket may carry it but they usually hide it deep in the lowest shelves of the baking aisle (are they embarrassed to carry it?)  One time I found a jar that looked dusty and dated, as if it had been back there since the last Thanksgiving.  Another time the checker humiliated me by saying, “No one ever buys this stuff.  Why would anyone ever buy this stuff.”  Well, I buy this stuff, pal.  Because I like mince pie.

Mother Goose rhymed: Little Jack Horner, Sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie.  That’s me.  I’m Jack on Thanksgiving.  And I’m sweet on mince pie.