Great Depression

Serving up prayers for Thanksgiving

Church_in_FogAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 18, 2018.

What’s your favorite holiday?

That’s a question my brothers and I asked each other as kids.

Christmas topped our lists, of course. How could any day compete with December 25 and the presents it brought?

If Thanksgiving ever received an honorable mention, it was for its one advantage over Christmas – you didn’t have to go to church!

Like most of our neighbors in the Elmhurst section of Providence, we celebrated Turkey Day in secular fashion, with family, football, and food. Watching the Macy’s parade on TV, I was unaware that our annual national feast had deep religious roots. But it does. The practice of observing prayer-filled days of thanksgiving, especially following good harvests, dates back to early American settlement communities.

On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued his fledgling country’s first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, he recommended that November 26 “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City that day. Then solemnity gave way to celebration, and the president provided the city’s imprisoned debtors with food and beer.

Presidents after Washington declared days of thanksgiving as well. According to the Plimouth Plantation Museum, by the 1850s almost every state and territory observed such celebrations, though not in any unified way. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that our national day of gratitude was formalized, due in large part to the persistent advocacy of one Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale, often referred to as the Godmother of Thanksgiving, was a successful editor and writer who began campaigning for the nationwide holiday in the 1830s. Her letter to Lincoln in September 1863 urged him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The appeal, on the heels of the North’s victory at Gettysburg, must have struck a chord with the president, who felt it was his sacred duty to preserve the Union.

On October 3, 1863 – exactly 74 years after Washington’s proclamation – Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

That timing remained unchanged until 1939 when November had five Thursdays, the last of which fell on the final day of the month. With the country still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the 23rd to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and, he hoped, spur retail sales. The change was not popular; 62 percent of Americans disapproved. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Thomas Taggert, criticized FDR for his action, derisively referring to the rescheduled holiday as “Franksgiving.”

A Commerce Department survey two years later reported that FDR’s brainchild had delivered little positive economic impact. Shortly afterward, a joint resolution of Congress, signed into law by the president, officially designated Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November – importantly, not the last Thursday as Lincoln had prescribed, thereby ensuring the holiday would never again fall as late as the 29th or 30th.

But it’s Lincoln’s proclamation that gives one pause now. In his younger years, Honest Abe was considered a religious skeptic. By 1863, however, his evolving spiritualism moved him to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The great man from Illinois had offered up a prayer that many of us are saying, in our own ways, this Thanksgiving as well.

 

 

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

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