The month of November contains two of my favorite holidays, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. To the casual observer, these two events may not seem to have much in common, but I respectfully disagree.
Like many things in life, the similarities between the two far outweigh the differences, but a few distinguishing characteristics are noteworthy. Veterans Day honors all of those who have served in the Armed Forces and offered to lay their lives on the line, if necessary, to defend our country. Thanksgiving commemorates a harvest celebration more than 400 years ago in the Plymouth Colony between the surviving passengers of the Mayflower and members of the native Wampanoag tribe. Three days of feasting on venison and seafood, in addition to performing military-style exercises demonstrated the diplomacy between the two cultures and an appreciation for their hard-earned blessings. Thanksgiving celebrates the first taste of freedom on American soil, and Veterans Day celebrates those who fought to protect this freedom.
Pilgrims and new recruits both left the comfort and security of their homes to chart a new path in unknown territories. English men and women fled the oppression of a class system and the crown-led Anglican Church for the possibility of land ownership and religious freedom in the new world. The newly enlisted or commissioned graduate from high school or college, say good-bye to their parents and deploy to basic training, seeking to serve their country, learn invaluable skills, find their purpose in life and secure their future. These new members of the military replace their unconditional, loving parents with demanding, in-your-face drill sergeants and commanding officers who prepare them for their new lives as soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. The early settlers optimistically departed the rainy, moderate temperatures of Great Britain in search of better opportunities for their families, only to confront hunger, deadly diseases and bitter cold winters.
Another similarity is both holidays have evolved over the years. Veterans Day originated as Armistice Day after the conclusion of WWI in 1919, became a national holiday in 1938 and was renamed in 1954 at President Eisenhower’s request. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 as an attempt to mend the division between the states and celebrate our origins with family, food and gratitude. In 1870, Congress passed legislation declaring the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, and President Roosevelt officially proclaimed the established date in 1942.
Although my early memories of Veterans Day are cloudy, I vividly recall my first Thanksgiving away from home as a Marine stationed in Japan. Instead of helping mom prepare for our family’s feast and enjoying a delicious meal, I experienced a mess hall filled with hungry, 18 and 19 year-olds, heard the clamoring of huge stockpots and roasting pans, smelled instant mashed potatoes and tasted the cooks’ humble attempt to mimic a home-cooked feast for several hundred men and women in uniform. Our egos prevented us from showing how homesick we truly were, but I think inside, each of us understood. What kept us motivated and cheerful was the pride of serving our country and being surrounded by our new brothers and sisters in arms. I will also never forget how wonderful Thanksgiving seemed and tasted my first year back in the states after spending several years overseas!
Similar to those who set sail in 1620, new warriors embark on their military journeys as eager, determined young people with a strong sense of independence and self-reliance. Like the brave ex-pats who left England, they learn to work together as a team, build community, overcome adversity and become a part of something larger and more important than themselves. Both holidays personify perseverance, sacrifice and overcoming hardships.
Besides these traits, the main reason I cherish both these traditions is the heartwarming and necessary phrase, “welcome home.” For veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, this greeting wasn’t always heard or guaranteed, as anti-war protests and sentiments filled the hearts and streets of America. Even if they didn’t receive a formal welcome home when they returned from active duty, Veterans Day restores that welcome and renews the patriotism each of them felt when they first joined the service. Thanksgiving celebrations also center around this theme of welcoming home our loved ones from afar. Why else would a family cook and spend days preparing a feast of comfort foods that will be consumed in 15 minutes? They labor for love and the ultimate homecoming for all who gather at their table.
During the month of November, please gather around your family, friends and community’s veterans to show your gratitude and offer a collective welcome home. Check with your local chamber of commerce, VFW and American Legion to see what’s happening in your community for these treasured holidays. If you are planning a Veterans Day event or hosting a free Thanksgiving meal, send the information to my office, and we will post it on social media.
This column appeared in the Joplin Globe’s Better Living publication on Nov. 5, 2021.