Okay, the summer has gone. And so have the colourful autumn leaves. Maybe the cold is bitter and there’s no snow. But, Lalit Mohan says Thanksgiving month is the best time to be in the U.S. — the festive season begins!
A November vacation in northern U.S. does not set the tourism trade afire. The summer is well in the past. It is no longer warm enough for leisurely outings. Even the glorious colours of the fall leaves are gone. And despite the bitter cold, the snow has still not fallen, which rules out several winter delights (even in the dash from heated indoors to your car, the chill can get to your bones).
But that does not mean that nothing is ‘happening’. In fact, this is the time the festive season really starts. And the first big one, celebrated on October 31, is Halloween. This is a Christian festival with pagan roots that the children in particular enjoy. The centerpiece of Halloween is the humble pumpkin. Stores selling festive paraphernalia display rows upon rows of pumpkins of all sizes. With these are sold kits for removing the top, gouging out the flesh (the flesh ends up in pumpkin pies!) and carving a mouth, a nose and eyes. At night a candle is lit, and you get your Jack-o’-lantern.
Also on sale are costumes and gear for witches that children wear as they go around collecting candy with their Trick-or-Treat routine all over the neighbourhood. Lighting bonfire, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films are also part of the Halloween agenda.
The big event of the season is, of course, Thanksgiving. This is a quintessentially American festival. It was first observed at the Plymouth Plantation in Virginia in 1621, when a group of ‘pilgrims’ from Europe organised a feast to celebrate their first harvest. It soon became an annual routine all over the country, though its dates and rituals varied from State to State.
The festival received official boost when, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a day of “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in Heavens”. At present, it is more or less settled that Thanksgiving will be observed on the last Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving is a secular festival. Almost everyone in America has an immigrant past, give or take a few centuries, so it is not tied to any faith or ethnicity. On this evening, the family gets together for prayers and a special meal at which the centrepiece is the turkey with a stuffing of mashed potatoes and fall vegetables. The head of the household carves the dish. This was the entrée on the original menu in 1621.
There are several spinoffs of this holiday. One is a series of parades all over the country, of which the best known is the one in New York held by Macy’s chain of stores. The parade is held every Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally. It features floats with traditional themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon characters and TV personalities, and marching bands. Other cities have their own celebrations. The one we witnessed in Chicago took place in bitter cold in the evening. Despite the weather, thousands thronged the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue, sometimes waiting since the afternoon.
It was already dark at 5.30 p.m. when the parade started at one end of the avenue. Two hundred trees along its route were wired with over a million lights. As the vanguard of the procession moved forward, the lights started coming on apace with it. The parade culminated at the point where the road meets the Chicago River and was followed by a brilliant fireworks display. Marchers, bands, floats, helium-filled balloons of such iconic figures as Mickey Mouse and plenty more were on show.
The major commercial spin-off of Thanksgiving is the Black Friday (BF). This is the start of the shopping season that lasts till Christmas. The kick-offs are discount sales in all major stores. Initially, several stores decided to open at six in the morning on the day following Thanksgiving Thursday to capture the holiday spirit. Competition brought the opening hour to 5 a.m., and it kept creeping backwards every year. Last year, it stood at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The joke is that if this continued BF may actually fall on a Friday after Thanksgiving — a full year ahead!
But, how did Black Friday start? One view is that it began in Philadelphia in the 1960s where the city police, strained to its limits by the mad shopping rush and the traffic jam, gave it this name. Another theory is that disgruntled employees, having to work long hours endorsed the nomenclature. The accountants, however, believe that the massive sales that take place on this day bring their books into ‘black’, hence the term. Either way, as writer Dave Berry put it in the Miami Herald, “The new Thanksgiving tradition is to gulp down your dinner, then race to the mall to join the vast swarming hordes of bargain hunters getting into fistfights over discounted electronics.” The splurge is estimated to have been $ 60 billion last year!
November is also the time for the winter sporting season to get into its stride. American football is the major attraction — a game in which the ball is carried mostly by hand!