Thanksgiving is a holiday rich in tradition. For many families it is a day when relatives gather at linen covered tables laden with serving bowls each brimming with an over abundance of food. The kitchen is toasty warm and smells of tantalizing turkey juices and buttery rolls and that strange vegetable dish Aunt Bernice brings every year.
The host and head of the table graciously pours wine into the “nice” glasses that only see daylight once or twice a year, and leads the extended family in a prayer of thanks to the great provider who stocks the frozen food aisle at ShopRite. And with a ringing clink of crystal the gathered love ones toast their good fortune and ability to be together on this special day.
And then Uncle Ernie starts talking politics.
Cousin Bobby, who Ernie has just branded a communist, throws a dinner roll at his head.
Ernie jumps up angrily and knocks over a lit candle, which immediately sets the table on fire.
Mom screams at her brother and tries to smother the flame with the platter of cheese-encrusted green beans.
Bernice demands to know why everyone hates her vegetable dish so much.
Samantha spills milk at the kids’ table and starts to cry.
Grandma wonders out loud what ever happened to table manners.
Grandpa belches and wants to know when the pumpkin pie will be served.
The Fire Department comes.
Like I said, for many families Thanksgiving is a holiday rich in tradition.
Fortunately, every Thanksgiving there is a football game to restore family harmony. It is a game that can be watched on TV or even played outside in the cold by feisty relatives who have had too much to eat and drink.
In fact, many people believe turkey day football was introduced as a way to salvage and preserve the tradition of family gatherings at Thanksgiving. A heated exchange at the dinner table can be quickly substituted for a heated exchange on the gridiron where disparaged family members are brought together in loving unity once again over their mutual disdain for the Dallas Cowboys.
Unless, of course, your family happens to be from Texas.
But it turns out the history of Thanksgiving Day football is as uniquely American as the holiday itself.
In the year 1625, on a marshy plain in what is now New Jersey, a Puritan settler and a Lenape Indian sat on a log. Their bellies were full from a day feasting on fowl and a bountiful harvest of mashed potatoes. Their eyelids were heavy and they had run out of conversation. Together they pondered the great expanse of flat green swampland before them.
“We need to watch football,” said the Puritan, breaking the silence. Being English, of course, he was referring to the game we call soccer.
“Where we find people stupid enough to play soccer in muddy swamp?” replied the Native American. They immediately cast their gaze across the great river to the island called Manhattan.
Later that day two ragtag teams comprised of waiters, taxi cab drivers, and unemployed actors arrived to play soccer in the wet Meadowlands. The ankle deep water made it very difficult to kick the ball, so the players threw it instead, then angrily tackled each other in the mud over the infractions.
The Puritan and the Lenape watched this exciting new game from the comfort of their log drinking strong frothy spirits distilled from hops. Soon they were joined by others. The growing crowd cheered wildly. They painted their faces and took off their shirts despite the chilly November air and dubbed themselves the “log potatoes”.
“Many people come now,” observed the Lenape to the Puritan from his wooden box seat on the fifty-yard line. “We need build big stadium, charge lots of money.”
“And maybe bring in scantily clad cheerleaders,” said the Puritan.
“And get Bon Jovi to play at half time,” nodded the Lenape in agreement.
But of course, this being New Jersey, the stadium was not built for another 350 years and the Thanksgiving Day classic eventually migrated to Detroit where the weather was worse.
But from that day forward football worked its way into the tradition of Thanksgiving like turkey narcosis.
And so on this fourth Thursday in November, as the smoke clears from our dining rooms and we return a mountain of dirty dishes to the kitchen, as we forgive the gravy stains of our families and retire to our better natures in front of the television set to watch a Thanksgiving Day football game, let us all count our blessings:
1. We own dishwashers.
2. There is still more pie.
3. There is still more wine.
4. We have Friday off.
5. We get to do this at someone else’s house at Christmas.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!