It is the first day of October and I am looking forward to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the Holiday of Holidays. It inaugurates the holiday season. It is the first day of Christmas. Halloween is that bazaar holiday void of purpose, a meaningless opportunity to dress in silly costumes and underwrite the candy industry. As a child “All Saints Eve” had no significance for a good Pentecostal kid. I just couldn’t understand it; just do it and enjoy it.
Thanksgiving is a holiday with significance. It was the nation’s Fourth of July before there was a Day of Independence, and a Feast of Ingathering patterned on Pentecost. As a national holiday Thanksgiving dismantles the myth of separation of faith and State. On Thanksgiving we reclaim our heritage as a Christian nation even if we have evolved into a plurality of religious stew demanding to be seasoned in public with the valium of agnosticism.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the most nostalgic of Holidays. Our other holidays are activity days, opening presents, cooking out, weekend trips, etc. But Thanksgiving is the one day of the year when the focal point of life is to gather as families around a banquet table and give thanks. As such, it is our holiday that most resembles the feast days of the Bible. On this day we pause to be thankful for the core blessings of our lives: food, shelter, and loved ones.
In my childhood, Thanksgiving was connected with hog killing day. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving we gathered at my Grand-parents house and butchered a couple of hogs. Back then it seemed to always be cold weather by Thanksgiving. The conditions were right for hanging meat in the smoke house, but in truth, we wrapped it and put it in the freezer. It’s just too much work to keep a fire going for weeks on end.
Out in my barn I have stored my Grandfather’s big cauldron in which we use to scald the hogs. Before dressing a hog (removing their entrails) the hair was removed. The process required dipping the carcass into hot water (scalding), pulling it out onto the rim of the tub and scrapping the hairs off. Once the hide was clean it was hung upside down and butchered. Then it was quartered, sliced and wrapped for the freezer.
The big cauldron was cleaned and the fat was cooked down for lard and “cracklins.” Eventually, a big pot and Coleman stove were discovered to be more convenient for this task. Pork lard had to be cured to get the heavy meat flavor out. Momma always fried potatoes in the lard before using it to cook anything else. The potatoes drew the pork flavor out and thus cured it for other purposes.
For me, butchering hogs is synonymous with Thanksgiving. The extended family gathered together in a primal ritual that sustained us through the coming long winter. The sacrifice of an animal did not devalue life, as members of PETA might claim. To the contrary, participation in this most ancient communal activity heightened my awareness of the worth of all life and increased my awareness of how precious it is as a gift from God.
By the time I was a teenager we had stopped butchering our own hogs and cows. I suppose it was just too easy to take them to Wilson’s for processing. Then again there was the day when one of my uncles threatened to shoot someone before the hog, a story I am not supposed to write about. Perhaps I have embellished the ritual with unwarranted pleasant memories and downplayed the family tensions that may have contributed to an increase in the local butcher’s business.
I am thankful no one ever got shot at one of our family Thanksgiving gatherings. Not every South Georgia family can say that.
October 1, 2010