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Simplify Your Life / ELAINE ST. JAMES

Don't Be a Turkey, Streamline Things

November 22, 1998|ELAINE ST. JAMES

What is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? For most Americans, the meaning of Thanksgiving is found in a turkey dinner. According to the National Turkey Federation, we'll consume 45 million turkeys this Thanksgiving--plus all the trimmings. These turkeys will be supplied by the $7.9-billion turkey farming and processing industry. (One lucky turkey will be selected for "pardon" by the president of the United States and sent to live out his days at a historical turkey farm.)

According to tradition, the Thanksgiving meal symbolizes a harvest festival, which was said to have been celebrated by Puritan Pilgrims and Indians in 1623 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. It's unlikely that the original feast bore any resemblance to our present-day stress-filled pigout. For many people, Thanksgiving now means days of shopping, preparation and cooking, followed by hours of cleanup, or stuffing themselves to bursting and then collapsing in front of football games on television.

Today, Thanksgiving also means travel. According to the Travel Industry Assn., Thanksgiving is the busiest travel holiday of the year. Last year an estimated 32.4 million Americans traveled more than 100 miles away from home for the holiday--by car, recreational vehicle, light truck, boat, bus, train or airplane. Our evening newscasts around Thanksgiving feature scenes that only the perverse would find worthy of thanks--airports crammed with short-tempered weary travelers and roadways stalled by an endless crawl of cars.

For retailers, the meaning of Thanksgiving is that it kicks off the official Christmas shopping season. The busiest shopping weekend of the year is the one following Thanksgiving. Many malls open as early as 7 a.m. and are mobbed by 9.

When our forefathers established a national day of Thanksgiving, they certainly didn't have in mind this eating-traveling-shopping frenzy. That's our own 20th century invention. As an exhausted woman remarked to me recently, "By the time our family fights its way through Thanksgiving dinner and I've run half a dozen loads through the dishwasher, I don't feel thankful; I feel ambushed."

It might be worthwhile for us to explore, as families and as a nation, what it would mean to take back Thanksgiving as the only national holiday devoted solely to expressing gratitude for the abundance in our lives. A good place to start might be to pull the plug on the TV and actually spend the meal talking to each other. Invite a friend or two whose families are far away to join you, thus reducing the number of travelers on the road. Rather than rising at the crack of dawn to stuff a 20-pound bird, plan a simpler meal, more in keeping with the real tradition. Spend time together with your family outdoors in nature, enjoying the fall foliage and the wild birds who add so much color and music and whimsy to our lives.

If, like many people, you're offended that a multibillion-dollar industry has grown up around slaughtering artificially fattened birds for Thanksgiving Day, consider adopting a turkey with a $15 donation to Farm Sanctuary. Since 1986 the Adopt-a-Turkey Project has rescued hundreds of turkeys who become the guests, not the main course, at a big vegetarian dinner held at the sanctuary. (Contact Farm Sanctuary through the Internet, at

If you're tired of the heavy traffic on the roads and the long lines in stores, be proactive about your Thanksgiving celebration. Decline to join the crowd. Instead, enjoy the simple pleasures of staying home and appreciating the abundance of life in your own backyard.


Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111, or e-mail her at

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