If Thanksgiving didn't exist, Americans would surely have to invent it.
In fact, Americans did invent Thanksgiving, much in the same way that a folk song or a time-honored recipe comes into being with no authorship attached.
Thanksgiving is probably the most American of holidays, as well as the most family-centered, traditional, uncommercialized and unchanging.
"I've been in and out of classrooms this week, and I heard about Pilgrims, corn, the first Thanksgiving. I thought, 'Deja vu! This is the way I was taught more than 40 years ago,' " says Shirley Harden, principal of Hernwood Elementary School in Baltimore County.
"Thanksgiving is the one holiday I've never had anybody complain to me about," she says. "It's interesting how it doesn't change."
If you date Thanksgiving to the three-day feast shared by 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians in the autumn of 1621, the day has been multicultural from the very beginning. They ate turkey, venison, sea bass, cod, cornmeal and possibly cranberries together (but not pumpkin pie because there was no wheat for flour).
"We celebrate Thanksgiving the traditional way other people celebrate Thanksgiving," said Barry Richardson of the Baltimore American Indian Center. "It's a special day of getting the family together to give thanks to the Creator and break bread. But the American Indian way is you give thanks for everything you have everyday."
Americans genuinely like Thanksgiving. It's their second-favorite holiday behind only Christmas, according to a 1989 Gallup Poll.
With few complaints, Americans eat turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, listen to the same old family jokes and stories, watch football on the sofa until the stuffing settles, store up the energy for holiday shopping, and squeeze in a moment of thanks and reflection.
Recent surveys show that:
* Eighty-four percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, 53 percent watch a parade on television, nearly half make or receive a long distance phone call, and almost a quarter attend religious services.
* Eighty-one percent say they get together with family on Thanksgiving because it makes them feel good, not just because it's the right thing to do.
* Americans are most thankful for health, family and employment, in that order.
* If someone were to give them a choice between receiving $1,000 cash or spending Thanksgiving with their family, about 80 percent would choose family and about 20 percent lucre.
Historians say Thanksgiving is a combination of traditions: the English "harvest home" festival traditionally celebrated after the crops were in, akin to the Pilgrims' feast of 1621; and the officially proclaimed "day of Thanksgiving," a solemn occasion for prayer and fasting to commemorate a specific instance of good fortune.
By the 1700s in New England the two strains had merged into a holiday that approximates today's Thanksgiving -- an annual family feast at which we give thanks for our blessings.
Maryland dates its first Thanksgiving to 1698, when colonial Gov. Francis Nicholson proclaimed a day of thanks on a Tuesday late in November because an epidemic had subsided.
Another Marylander, John Hanson, as president of the Continental Congress, set the last Thursday of November 1782 as a public "day of solemn Thanksgiving to God for all his mercies."
The city of Baltimore celebrated a day of Thanksgiving in November 1832 to mark the end of an Asiatic cholera epidemic that raged that summer.
But none of these was an annual event.
The South especially resisted the Yankee celebration of Thanksgiving, and it was not until the Civil War that it attained the status of a national holiday, decreed by Abraham Lincoln in October 1863 and followed every year since.
In proclaiming the holiday, presidents have always found something to be thankful for, even in the darkest hours.
"As a nation we have suffered far less than other peoples from the present world difficulties," President Herbert Hoover said rather hopefully in his proclamation of 1930, the year after the stock market crash.
And lame-duck President Bush, in his Thanksgiving proclamation this year, gave "thanks for the demise of imperial communism and for the current harvest of liberty throughout the world."
Thanksgiving's rise from a regional to a national observance was due largely to the one-woman crusade of Sarah Josepha Hale. The 19th century editor of women's magazines began her campaign for a national Thanksgiving in 1846 and didn't relent until Lincoln made it so.
"The unifying effect of such a feast can hardly be overrated," Hale wrote presciently.
The Thanksgiving of today is, in essence, a Victorian holiday, little changed in the past century. It was about 1890 that Americans began to identify Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim-Indian feast of 1621.
"It's not totally untrue," says Carolyn Travers, director of research at Plimoth Plantation, a Massachusetts living history museum that depicts Pilgrim life. "Sometimes the myth becomes more important than the reality because it's part of the way we define ourselves."
'It resists commercialization'
"Thanksgiving is nice because it is so family-oriented, it resists commercialization, and there isn't a tradition of gift-giving," she says.
In Maryland, Thanksgiving has meant family gatherings, football rivalries, horse races, fox hunts and mass feeding of the poor, such as Bea Gaddy's Thanksgiving feast for thousands today in East Baltimore.
"Among the appropriate observances of the day," said President Benjamin Harrison in his 1891 proclamation, "are rest from toil, worship in a public congregation, the renewal of family ties around our American firesides, and thoughtful helpfulness toward those who suffer lack of the body or of the spirit."
The one modern-day touch is the Thanksgiving Day parade that kicks off the holiday shopping season. That tradition began in 1921 in Philadelphia when Gimbel's department store sponsored a parade on Thanksgiving.
Puritans "would look with horror upon the secularization of the day as we celebrate it now," Gerald W. Johnson wrote in The Sun in 1927. "And that is a consoling thought, for anything fit to make a Puritan turn over in his grave is likely to be a pretty good thing for the race."
The last great Thanksgiving controversy erupted more than half a century ago. President Roosevelt, trying to spur holiday shopping, moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month in 1939 and 1940.
The change was unpopular. Some 79 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Democrats disapproved, a Gallup Poll showed. The states divided on which day to celebrate the holiday. The mayor of Atlantic City proclaimed Nov. 23 "Franksgiving" and Nov. 30 Thanksgiving.
Poet Ogden Nash wrote:
"Thanksgiving, like ambassadors, Cabinet officers and others smeared with political ointment,
Depends for its existence on presidential appointment."
The decision was reversed in 1941, and that year Congress adopted the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. It has stayed that way ever since.
A voice for change
Still, some Americans would change Thanksgiving radically.
One such is Karen Davis of Seneca, Montgomery County, and president of United Poultry Concerns Inc. She is an animal-rights activist who would "change the holiday by having dinner with TTC turkeys rather than on turkeys."
Ms. Davis, who shares her home with 10 chickens and spent last Thanksgiving in the company of two rescued turkeys, says 45 million pathologically obese turkeys are slaughtered a year for Thanksgiving alone.
"Turkeys were Native Americans long before we arrived on the scene. They could share this continent and its bounty with us," she says. "I would stop the killing that takes place during the holiday."
Even if Ms. Davis or others succeed in altering our Thanksgiving celebration, the holiday seems destined to bring American families together for at least another century.
"Pious in youth, Thanksgiving has been, by turns, a patriotic, partisan, nostalgic, jingoistic, gay, sporting and domestic holiday," wrote historian Diana Karter Appelbaum. "Thanksgiving changes, but it endures."