Thursday, November 27, 2008

Words in the World: Thanksgiving

For my readers who are not from the US, Thursday (Nov. 27) is Thanksgiving Day in the USA.  It is a holiday commemorating a harvest feast shared in 1621 between the Plymouth settlers (colonists from England) and the Native Americans in what is now Massachusetts.  Today, Thanksgiving marks the busiest travel week of the year in North America as people gather with family and friends.  Millions of Americans have been scurrying from one place to another in the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage. 

Personally, I love Thanksgiving. It is a holiday for family and friends and football and all of my favorite foods, too.  But traditional Thanksgivings have been very few in my adult life. And some of my best Thanksgiving memories have nothing to do with turkey or pumpkin pie…

A few years ago, I worked as the tour manager for a high school marching band that was marching in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade . I'd been to the parade once before, but I had never seen it from the other side -- and it was an amazing experience. Our day began as we loaded the buses for Manhattan at 1:30 am. We had to have the kids lined up for instructions by 3:30 am, and then we just waited. The kids were cold, but the weather was clear. And they were so very excited. Thousands of people march in the parade each year from balloon-wielding volunteers to celebrities on floats to the ubiquitous marching bands, and there we were in the thick of it all.

My co-workers and I were there to keep the band happy. We made sure they were in the right places at the right time, that they found the porta-potties along Central Park West, and that they stayed warm-ish. The waiting time was truly the hardest, but then -- suddenly -- it was time to go! The whistle blew and the mass of humanity before us slowly began to move.

Clad in black so that we fit in with the group, Terra and I marched along with the band. After all, the fastest way to the end of the parade was on the route. The band beamed. They were so amped after a night without sleep and two years of anticipation. But they marched and played at the careful, deliberate pace which comes from moving thousands of people through the streets of New York City.

Walking along Central Park, the parade almost felt like a rural event. The crowds weren't very thick, and as people waved to us from their balconies it almost felt as if we were just in the neighborhood. But that all changed when we hit Columbus Circle. Suddenly it was very clear we were in the middle of Manhattan. Children and adults alike packed the parade route standing a dozen deep and craning their necks. Those proverbial chills ran up my spine. There I was, a writer who doesn’t even play an instrument, marching in the Macy’s Parade . Making our way along Broadway, the air hung thick with holiday cheer. And as we entered Times Square, my heart nearly stopped. People peered down at us from the studios of MTV and Good Morning America . Times Square was packed with people all cheering and having a great time.

And then the parade stopped.

The parade is a bit hurky-jerky anyway. The television coverage ensures that it doesn’t just keep moving. But something ahead of us (we never knew what) meant that this band I was with – a band from a medium town in a red state – stopped and played for the crowds in Times Square for nearly ten minutes. And the crowd cheered! As the band played and played, the crowd first swayed and then broke into rowdy, joyful dance. We had Times Square to ourselves. No taxis. No tour buses. No honking drivers or handbag hawkers. For ten minutes the nexus of New York – where Broadway babies live and die – was captivated by a high school band in a truer moment than “High School Musical” could ever fabricate.

And then it was over, and we marched on to Herald Square and the TV cameras and their 30 seconds on national television, but when we talked about the experience that evening over turkey and pie, it was the electricity in Times Square that they would remember.

May this holiday be fodder for joyful memories.  
Happy Thanksgiving, wherever in the world you may be!

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