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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Over the river and through the woods …’

It’s Thanksgiving again, and I’m sure we all have something to feel thankful for, no matter how much we may complain on a day-to-day basis.

This year, the intensifying of the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States has made celebration of the holiday more difficult. Epidemiologists and other health experts are urging us to stay safe inside our own households, not mingling with outsiders, even with our closest blood relatives and dearest pals.

Americans, of course, are taking this hard. Thanksgiving is the gateway to the so-called holiday season, a time fraught with weighty emotional baggage. As Pastor Phillip Brooks put it when he penned the lovely hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” We heap our deepest, most complicated emotions on this one season, much as the Grinch loaded up his little lone dog sled. This relatively brief time, coinciding with the dark days of winter solstice, is steeped in emotional significance. And it looks as if we are going to be urged to isolate right through New Year’s Day.

Some people will observe the warnings and limit their conviviality this year, while others will instead observe their usual holiday traditions. Either way, it’s good to give thanks, and to set aside a special day for it –why they call it Thanksgiving–because heaven knows between one thing and another we tend to forget most of the time.

In a normal year, we would get together with friends and family, eat, drink and maybe watch some football, another great American tradition.

Then we would drive home through snow and sleet, or, if the feast was held at our own table, rearrange the contents of the refrigerator so that the leftovers fit inside without the cranberry sauce spilling all over everything the next time someone opens the door to rummage around for just one more little piece of pie, cranberry sauce being a bad thing to spill ( in addition to its brilliant scarlet color, it is known for being one of those food substances, like Jell-O and maple syrup, that are almost impossible to dislodge from a kitchen surface once they have set up) while complaining about the way our family members comported themselves (they never do seem to change, do they?), whether the yams had too few or too many tiny marshmallows in them, and so on.

That was a very long sentence for a newspaper, wasn’t it?

We should also always keep in mind that even though survival was a struggle in the Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers gave thanks for their first harvest with a three-day feast.

In his highly informative book, “Saints and Sinners,” George P. Willison describes the first Thanksgiving fare as consisting of “venison, roast duck, roast goose, clams and other shellfish, succulent eels, white bread, cornbread, leeks and watercress and other ‘sallet herbs,’ with dried plums and dried berries as dessert–all washed down with wine made of the wild grape, both white and red, which the Pilgrims described as ‘very sweet and strong.’ “ Wild turkeys and cranberries were locally plentiful and might have been on the menu. No mention, you will note, is made of those little marshmallows or fruited Jell-O or green beans with Campbell’s mushroom soup.

Over the river and through the woods …

To Grandmother’s house we go. Only not so much this year, because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, in Keene, Stewart’s Shop, the convenience store and gas station is busily expanding. Several years ago, around Thanksgiving, a controversy was raging over the proposed erection of a 90-foot canopy. Some people said they would welcome the change if it would mean faster service at the gas pump. Others believed that Stewart’s should be allowed to expand, on principle. And then there were those, like artist Frank Owen, for whom aesthetics were the guiding principle.

“I think that Stewart’s should be allowed to build its 90-foot canopy,” Frank told me at the time, throwing his arms up over his head in a generous, expansive gesture. “But I think they should build it at the Nature Conservancy, where it will fit in better.”

Now it seems as if the 90-foot canopy has always been there, just as pretty soon we will all be taking the new, expanded Stewart’s for granted. Maybe next year we will be celebrating the holidays as if the COVID epidemic had never happened.

Have a good week!