Historiography: Of Thanksgivings Past

The Holidays can be both exhilarating and exhausting. It can also be joyous and frustrating. It is a collision of comfort, joy, and all other feelings, emotions, and memories.

The stretch from November towards the end of the calendar year is laden with anticipation. We anticipate our plans for Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukah, and New Year's. We make those plans, check them twice, look over our smartphones to see who’s naughty or nice.

The holidays are fine and dandy. Yet, I also had a love/hate relationship with them. I love them because it is a reminder that you can do something special for someone when they truly need it. I also loathe them because there is always some form of drama that will rear its head even in the worst possible situations.

It can also be a lonely time. I had some years where I found myself on the solo end of the holidays. That’s not a good disposition for someone who sometimes suffers from depression and anxiety.

If I had to pick a "favorite" – rather, one I love celebrating above all else – it's Thanksgiving. The American one situated in November. It was marked to celebrate the feast between the so-called Pilgrims escaping religious persecution from Great Britain and the Wampanoag people of the newly-christened Plymouth area in eastern Massachusetts.

The British somehow love celebrating Thanksgiving as a part-feast, part-religious ceremony. This was true in the early colonies of Virginia dating back to 1607. Their tradition dates back to the previous century, where the Spanish and French would have such rituals to give thanks to Almighty God. At the same time, it is also a ritual of indigenous peoples by expressing gratitude through sharing and giving things away.

With multiple etymologies on how this celebration originally began, it became a national ritual as a response to conflict within this country's borders. President Abraham Lincoln asked his nation – still divided by the Civil War – to come together and broaden the celebration of Thanksgiving to coincide on November 26, 1863. This national proclamation – delivered through Secretary of State William H. Seward on behalf of President Lincoln – would give us an institution that all Americans would be able to share and come together as families and communities.

This was not to discount past celebrations of Thanksgiving leading up to the nation's darkest hour in 1863. Rather, it served as a permanent marker for us to find a time and place to seek a peaceful moment with the ones we love.

Since then, Thanksgiving in November was transformed into a national ritual where it has served as a commercial transition point. The evolution of this holiday has been seen from the way we traveled to get to our ritual point and what happens afterward. Need I remind you of "Black Friday?"

This holiday has yielded plenty of stories in my lifetime. Some may seem boring. Some even sad. Some will make you laugh. Then again, you be the judge.


Our Thanksgiving ritual always happened at our house. It was mom at the stove/range stuffing the turkey and putting it in for hours. Plus, all of the fixings. It was her thing – a glimpse of the country untouched by the Vietnam War…well, almost.

In the kitchen, it was her show. Every ingredient worth. The television was on for the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York, along with the annual Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys games. Our home may be in Reseda, California – planted on a land where citrus trees once bloomed before World War II – but it certainly felt like anywhere in the USA.

Perhaps it shows how Midwestern my mother was. She was born in Chicago, raised in Beloit, Wisconsin and Cincinnati, Ohio before arriving with her family in Los Angeles in 1941 – right before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

If my memory serves me well, I think we only traveled once for Thanksgiving. My father's family is from Northern California – San Rafael, to be exact.

Then, I became a restless collegiate undergrad. I was spending my only year at Cal State Northridge – living at home – when I had the crazy idea that I did not want to have Thanksgiving with my family. In 1985, I was talking to a friend at the time and they offered their home for a Thanksgiving spot. All I had to was rent a car. To explain, I did not have a car that would do the trip from Reseda to Lynwood and back, so I wasted my money and credit cards on rentals at the time. I was such a fool.

It looked like I was when I picked up the car at Los Angeles International Airport. One thing I learned is that traveling the day before Thanksgiving in the USA is not for the faint of heart. I got one of the Hertz counters at LAX to find that they sold out the class I reserved. Therefore, I was presented a choice between a Dodge Lancer and a Volvo 740 GLE. I picked the latter – a fancy Brick with a Redblock under the hood.

That was not only a good pick – it got me to see some co-workers at a park in North Hollywood for their annual “turkey bowl” flag football game and home to change for the Thanksgiving feast down in Lynwood.

The latter did not go well with my family. Though I think my brother was OK with it. My mother and grandmother were clearly against this idea. But, as I was in rebellion mode with my family at that stage in my life, I went ahead and drove the Volvo down to Lynwood to be with my friend’s family.

MN Cars & Coffee September 2017

That Thanksgiving was one of the finest in my life. They cooked everything that my mother would never consider cooking – collard greens, macaroni and cheese, in addition to the traditional fare. It was delightful, and the company was superb.

To make up with my mother, I hit the Black Friday sales and got her a new comforter for her bed for Hanukkah. I could be a good son, sometimes.

After my move to San Rafael in 1987, my Thanksgivings were with either roommates or people who used to be friends of mine. I did travel back to Southern California for Thanksgiving once. That was in 1991.

I will admit that most of the details were foggy, but I do recall being asked by my brother to pick mom up at her place across Orange County from him. I could have protested – or, I might have – but I knew that it was my duty as her son to do so. This was achieved through a tactical error – I was staying at a hotel near my brother’s place in Aliso Viejo instead of being closer towards mom's place in Stanton.

For that trip, I rented a white 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera – a "go-to" car for rentals at the time. I drove up the San Diego Freeway – the infamous "405" – got off at Beach Boulevard for my drive up to mom’s mobile home. She was in a wheelchair, so it was not just transferring her in the passenger seat but putting the folded chair in the trunk. The Ciera had an OK sized trunk at the time.

Getting her to my brother's (and my soon-to-be-at-the-time sister-in-law) townhome was fine since we took the high occupancy lane on the 405 down towards Aliso Viejo. Once we were there, no one knew it would be the last time we would have Thanksgiving as a family.

Maybe it was a sign when this tired younger brother tried to transfer his mother back into the Ciera. Dropping your mother is not a good thing. If it was any other time, she would get completely angry and upset. She didn't. Mom probably didn’t feel a thing. She looked up at me and laughed.


I profusely apologized over dropping my mother on the ground in the midst of transferring into the rented Ciera. One look from her assured me that (a) she understood how tired I was and (b) that family still mattered, even as we have grown apart.

Since then, I have been invited to plenty of Thanksgiving celebrations from coast to coast. I used to visit a family when I lived in Northern Virginia, while I had orphan Thanksgivings near Madison, Wisconsin and a drive out a couple’s place on the edge of the Twin Cities.

This year, I’m going solo. I made a reservation via Open Table, whom I did a story with a few years ago. It would be nice to sit down with a family or a group of friends to break bread and celebrate this American tradition. This year, I can only reflect on the day and give thanks to those who are a part of this journey.

That is the essence of Thanksgiving. The giving of thanks to the life we live and the people who are a part of it. Something I hope we practice not just on one day – but every day.

All Photos by Randy Stern

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