Thanksgiving al Fresco

My family celebrates Thanksgiving outside. Sun, snow, rain or whatever, we congregate at Thanksgiving Field to celebrate the day in a way for which I am truly grateful. I can’t take much credit for it though. My mother-in-law Hope and her brother Burges started the tradition more than 50 years ago, and haven’t missed a year. My son knows no other kind of Thanksgiving, and for him, like me, it has become his favorite day of the year. Luckily for us all, Thanksgiving has managed to escape the yoke of commercialization that has cheapened most holidays, so it retains a purity of intent: Giving thanks is still the heart of it all.

I got a promotion this year, to Fire Boss. So my Thanksgiving begins about 9:30, with the lighting a of a huge bonfire.  Cousin Sandy and I have spent several mornings over the past weeks cutting downed trees into logs, and clearing brush in the field, a former cornfield now grown over with grasses and cedars. We make a huge blaze, so that by the time people arrive the fire will have settled to a bed of hot coals, the better to keep us all warm without too much smoke blowing in peoples’ faces.

People start rolling in around 11:30. We eat early to take advantage of the warmest time of day. Folks arrive on foot, by tractor–one year, some came by oxcart. Set up begins. Even the little ones help. We’ve made brick hearths in the ground, and a few scoops of coals helps keep the goodies warm.

My uncle-in-law Burges, who helped start this whole thing, loved song, and his family includes a few members with beautiful voices. So we gather round the fire with our special homemade Thanksgiving song books, and sing a few songs. Usually a few giving thanks kinds of hymns, and then the favorites-”Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” and “America the Beautiful.”  Out under the sky, standing upon God’s good earth, and as one in a huge, encircling ring of family–being very, very thankful comes naturally. It’s easy to be in this moment.

Then it’s dinner time. Yesterday was fine, sunny and mid-40s. On days when there’s been a foot of snow, temperatures in the 20s or pouring rain, the idea is eat quickly enough so the gravy doesn’t freeze or the stuffing get soaked,  but we could take our leisure this time around. After dinner, I take the traditional group shot, and we retreat indoors, to the house Burges and Hope grew up in. There we enjoy the finale, coffee and a table overflowing with cakes and cookies, pies and puddings.

You might have noticed a few orange hats in some of the pictures. Uncle Burges died this summer, just shy of 90. His signature Thanksgiving attire was a hooded orange sweatshirt. So his immediate family all wore orange hats in remembrance. For me, I’m thankful for many things this season, especially for having known Burges and for being part of the tradition he helped to begin. Long may it last.

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10 Responses to Thanksgiving al Fresco

  1. Barbarapc November 28, 2008 at 4:41 pm #

    What an absolute blast! Love the comment about eating quickly so the gravy won’t freeze. Looks like you had a perfect day. You all did Uncle B proud.

    Thanks Barbara-We did have a perfect day. It’s amazing how often we luck out with the weather, though different folks have different ideas about it–my son’s favorite was when there was a foot of snow. He loved having snowball fights during Thanksgiving dinner.–Steve

  2. lisa at Greenbow November 28, 2008 at 9:03 pm #

    What a unique celebration Steve. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Hello Lisa–It’s a great way to honor the day, and easy when it’s nice out. I’ve been known to grumble about two especially rainy times, but even those days turned out to be good ones, celebration-wise, if not weatherwise.–Steve

  3. ESP November 29, 2008 at 12:47 am #

    Sounds like a fantastic and wonderful unconventional family tradition, in an amazing environment!. The fire part would be a riot…I love building rather large bonfires.
    Regards,
    ESP.

    It is all those things, Philip. As for the fire, I love making them too. My wife, son and I–and sometimes a few friends–do the same thing New Year’s Eve. We really need a roaring blaze then as it can be VERY CHILLY around midnight in January.–Steve

  4. Coco November 29, 2008 at 2:50 pm #

    What a wonderful tradition! Cold or not, I bet it’s the best day of the year. Thanks for sharing.

    Thank you Coco. We think it’s a wonderful tradition too and, heck, cold’s not really an issue if you’re prepared for it–it’s usually not THAT cold in November.–Steve

  5. Pam/Digging November 30, 2008 at 2:38 am #

    That’s wonderful. I bet the kids, even the teenagers, love it. Thank you for sharing your unique tradition.

    Hi Pam–Kids love the informality of it–and the huge dessert extravaganza that comes after. There are so many people, the teens can hang with teen cousins, the kids with the other kids–lots of them say it’s their favorite holiday. And any kids or adults who live far away and who can only get to either Thanksgiving or Christmas, usally opt for Thanksgiving.–Steve

  6. Michelle December 1, 2008 at 10:16 pm #

    An environmental travesty.
    What a grotesque way to treat the air quality.
    What’s the phrase ? – oh yeah, ” Got Pollution ? ”

    Michelle-I’ll try not to sound as snotty as you do…Though the jury is still out, burning wood is widely regarded as carbon neutral. On a clear day, smoke from a fire like that rises rapidly, so the only folks impacted by it were those of us around the blaze.

    PS: Noticed some nice pics on your blog from Barcelona. How ironic! Isn’t that in Spain? Don’t you live in California? Did you walk? Or take a plane, thus wasting a vast amount of fossil fuel and polluting the atmosphere? Ever heard of global warming? As an individual passenger on those 12,000-mile-plus roundtrips, YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF MORE THAN 10 TONS of CO2! That’s your share; the flights as a whole produced HUNDREDS of times that much. Environmental travesty anyone? Maybe you’d approve of our tradition if instead of wood we burned jet fuel.

    Any time you want to discuss air quality and pollution, I’d be delighted to compare the impact of my 4-hour bonfire to your trans-continental and trans-oceanic vacation. If you want to talk the talk to me, please be sure you are walking the walk. Otherwise it just comes off as ugly and hypocritical.

    Think about it.-Steve

  7. Michelle December 2, 2008 at 3:18 pm #

    Steve,
    I had to fly to Barcelona due to a death in the family and to take care of two young children.

    To understand the dire environmental impact that burning wood has, you may find this website helpful in educating yourself – http://burningissues.org/car-www/index.html

    Sorry to hear of your loss. And of your pulmonary health problems.

    I see from your blog that this is-to put it politely-a hot-button issue for you, so we are unlikely to engage in any meaningful dialog on this topic. But since you feel so strongly about it, may I suggest you stop building fireplaces and bbqs for your clients?

  8. Michelle December 3, 2008 at 4:05 pm #

    Steve,
    If you notice, all the fireplaces and bbq’s that we build and install use natural gas. They do not burn wood.
    The two fireplaces that we install several years ago have now been retrofitted to gas and no longer burn wood. They are EPA certified and can now be used during ‘Spare the Air’ alerts.

    The Bay Area Clean Air Consortium , who issues the Spare The Air alerts, has enacted a law requiring homeowners not to use their highly polluting wood burning appliances to ensure that the citizens of the area can breath clean air.

    A new environmental law has passed in the San Francisco Bay area, as well in other parts of California and in other progressive areas of the country outlawing the new installation of wood burning stoves and fireplaces due to the incredible amounts of pollution that wood burning fires put into our atmosphere.
    My design and build firm complies with , and in most cases, exceeds the code compliances for Clean Air and other sustainable environmental building techniques.

    I know that old habits and traditions are hard to break, but for the sake of our environment and the health of the people who live and share this world, changes need to be made.

    It wasn’t that long ago that catalytic converters were added to cars over the cries of detractors, but now it is considered common place and our air quality has improved substantially because of it.
    Change is good .
    The benefits outweigh the continued long term detrimental environmental effects.


    Michelle- You’re right: Change is good.

    But being rude and insulting never helps to bring it about. I learned that in kindergarten. You don’t know me from a hole in the wall but you have no problem attempting to vilify me and something I care deeply about. So you disapprove. Hey, throw a few cheap shots! I can take it. If you really want to fight the burning of trees or wood products, I’m sure you could find a more worthwhile target. In the time you’ve spent trying to belittle me, acres and acres of primary rainforest in South America, Africa and southeast Asia have gone up in smoke.

    But you want to make this personal. So I’m feeling bullied and exploited. As a consequence, I, in turn, disrespect you. And now you want me to listen to your concerns? You’re kidding, right? My heart and mind are closed to you. You lost me at the outset of this exchange.

    Look, I’ve read your blog. You vacation in Indonesia, Hawaii. That air travel creates a massive carbon footprint. And jet engines spew particulate matter as surely as any wood fire does, and they spew it directly into the troposphere, the most delicate part of our atmosphere. So it’s not as if you’re living in a cave without electricity, foraging for seeds and fallen fruit. Some of your actions have a negative impact on our planet, just as some of mine do. What makes your choices better, and who are you to insult me for mine? I also read about your feuds with the neighbors—shining bright lights in their bedroom, revving your leaf blower, cussing out their kid. Is that approach to the problem working out for you? Or are you just the crazy lady next door?

    As you mentioned, change is good. Many in our country and the world hunger for it. And what do we want more than anything? Throughout history, humankind has clamored for an end to the bully pulpit, which has never been an effective agent for progressive change anywhere in the world, ever. Nobody likes a bully. All it does is back both parties into their respective corners and harden their positions. If your strategy is to effect change rather than vent your rage on a few individuals, you may want to rethink your tactics. Civility counts. Try starting from a place of mutual respect. That’s a change worth making.

  9. Michelle December 4, 2008 at 12:29 pm #

    The point of the exchange is for awareness that will better inform and educate the public .
    I’m sorry that is lost on you.

  10. Carla November 20, 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    Steve, what a lovely tradition you and your family have. That’s exactly what I have in mind for my family. I’m sure you all have wonderful memories of your times there. The property is just beautiful….who wouldn’t want to be there in any weather. And I want to appluade you for your handling of this Michelle person. Shame on her for tainting your wonderful sharing with her ugliness. And bravo to you for calling her on her behavior. Some people just can’t stand to see people happy and having fun. Enjoy you family and many Thanksgivings to come.