Thanksgiving hymns are my favorite holiday songs. Unlike Christmas, pop stars do not put out Thanksgiving recordings. There is no “Madonna Sings Thanksgiving” or “A Family Thanksgiving” as sung by Tony Bennett. For a number of years now, Thanksgiving has almost totally merged with Christmas and New Years into a total “Holiday Season”. All the Christmas decorations are in place a week before Thanksgiving now. It is really a second rate holiday or, at least not a holiday celebrated like Christmas.
Thanksgiving was much different when I was growing up. Stores would never think of decorating until after Thanksgiving was over. Schools spent four weeks in November singing Thanksgiving songs and talking about Pilgrims. The four day Thanksgiving weekend was not a prelude to something special then, it was something special.
I think one of the things that changed Thanksgiving was taking the Thanksgiving songs out of the public schools.
It is surprising to many people to find out that almost all my knowledge of religion came initially from my public elementary school. I did not go to church, and, in those days, at least in the south, the public school operated as somewhat of an adjunct to the Baptist Church. Some years I had teachers that went all the way around the room every morning having everyone say a prayer (out loud). This would not be tolerated today, primarily because it is against the law. It should not have been tolerated then, because it was in poor taste. The public school system had no reason to teach its pupils about Jesus, but a lot of them did, and prior to about 1963, there was no law against it.
While it was wrong to turn the classroom into a vacation bible school every morning, one good thing did come out of it. I learned a lot of Thanksgiving songs. All Thanksgiving songs are, by definition, religious songs, and I guess you can’t sing them in school anymore. I liked the songs because they were nondenominational, and my buddy Mitchell Brown , the only Jew in my class, could sing them and not feel hypocritical, like he would the next month when we had to sing “God Rest Ye merry Gentlemen”. Maybe that’s a bad example, I don’t know that anyone understands the first line of that song. “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.” The whole line is forced so that the author will have something to rhyme with “Christmas Day”. I have never been all that sure about the refrain either, “O tidings of Comfort and Joy”.
But back to the Thanksgiving songs, they are glorious, and it’s a shame that we only hear them once a year and that they are not played on the radio like the Christmas songs. Think about it, “Dominic the Christmas Donkey” is played hundreds of times more every year than “ Now Thank we all our God” and a half a dozen other true Thanksgiving songs. If you go to church, you are lucky to hear one, and at most two of the songs every year.
A few years ago, my wife and I were in Chicago for Thanksgiving. There is a wonderful Church there that is well over 100 years old called the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Unlike most churches, which long ago ditched the Thursday Thanksgiving service, Fourth Presbyterian still holds one. Rayda and I were excited to be able to go to it, and I was really looking forward to the music.
So we showed up bright and early at the Church ,which eventually had a full house. The introductory music was beautiful. Everything I could have hoped for. Then, as the service got started, a young man slipped into the seat next to me in our pew. I did not notice him at first, but saw after a few minutes that he appeared to be of Arab extraction, something quite common in Chicago and every other city of any size in this country. I also noticed that he had a white wrapped package under his arm.
The young man then began taking notes and checking things off of a checklist. These were not notes of the sermon, this was before the sermon. I don’t know what he was taking notes of. Maybe the music, I looked back to the front and forgot about the young man. A few minutes later I looked over again, and he was gone. Since he was sitting less than six inches from me I could not understand how he left without my noticing. I did not think anything of it until I looked on the floor and saw that he had placed there, the white package that he had held under his arm .A chill went up my spine.
I’m not particularly proud of it, but my first thought was, “Oh great, an Al Qaeda operative has planted a bomb in this church, directly next to my foot.” My second thought was,”Oh shit, I bet he really did that and I am going to blow up. “ I turned and whispered to Rayda, “did you see that Arab guy sitting next to me ?” “Yes”, she said, did he leave, I did not see him go ?” “Well”, I said,” he left, but he left that funny looking package right there”. Here I pointed to the package with my left foot. My thought was that Rayda would think nothing of it & turn back to the service. What I saw in her eyes was different, What I saw in her eyes was “Shit, that guy probably left a bomb.”
It is one thing to be paranoid. It is quite another to see a perfectly reasonable person like Rayda agree with your paranoia. At his time the collection was starting and a nice woman stuck a plate in front of my face. I grabbed her arm and pulled her to me. “Listen” I said between clinched teeth, “someone left a package here under strange circumstances, don’t you want to check it out ?” “oh no” she replied “ someone will pick it up after the service.” “Why don’t you take it with you now ?” I helpfully suggested. “oh no, someone will get it.” was her answer and she pulled her arm out of my tight grasp.
While the package never did explode, it kind of ruined the mood for Rayda and I. I kept thinking what would the newspapers say about this ? Surely they would think that someone must have seen the bomb and could have warned the whole congregation, who was so dumb as to not report the incident ? But I could not make myself stand up and yell “Bomb” and I did not want to start a panic by running out screaming, so I sat there, I heard nothing from the service for the next half hour, no music, no sermon, all I did was stare at a big white oddly shaped package, and listened for ticking coming from its direction..When the service ended, I found another usher and reported the package, the usher smiled knowingly and went back to chatting with an old lady. Rayda and I exited the scene, Unlike Lot’s wife, not looking back.
So now, each Thanksgiving, after I thank God for my family and home, my friends and this good earth. I always add one more thanks to the list. Thank you for not letting me get blown up in Chicago. Amen.