Thanksgiving is our most adaptable, most inclusive national holiday. It is celebrated by everyone who lives in America (whether they are descended from the Pilgrims or not), it has no particular religious or political connotations (beyond the debate over whether Native Americans really shared a meal with the first settlers), and it has not been totally coopted and commercialized by retail madness (unless you count the last-minute scramble at the supermarket). Beyond the common conventions of a day off, a big meal, and the Macy’s parade followed by football, people are free to adapt their celebrations, even their menus, to suit their own tastes and styles.
In the early days of my marriage when we lived in New York, we did the obligatory trek out to my in-laws. One year we missed the dinner entirely because we were sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. After that, we moved across the country away from family and Thanksgiving became a quiet dinner with friends.
By the time we moved back to Connecticut a few years later, the older relatives were ready to pass the drumstick, and so Turkey Day trotted out to our house because we could accommodate the crowd. Of course, everyone still had to have, and therefore bring, their traditional family favorites; after all, what does a a relocated Texas girl know from pickled herring, creamed onions, and mashed potatoes with turnips?
Apologies to those few remaining family members who might read this, but a couple years of that production — the three days of prep work, the iffy weather, the clean-up that took another three days — prompted us to search for a new tradition of our own. We decided that we would henceforth “go away” for Thanksgiving.
As it happened, we had good friends who had a vacation home on Cape Cod and spent most of their holidays there. “Why don’t you come up to the Cape and spend Thanksgiving with us?” they asked. And since Plymouth, the historic site of that first Thanksgiving with the native Wampanoags in 1602, lies on the Northwestern corner of the Cape, and since the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod are world renowned, producing 67 percent of the total cranberry supply, what better place could there possibly be to celebrate Thanksgiving?
Now most people go to the Cape in the summer, as we had done once before. The Cape’s year-round population is about 200,000, but it swells by roughly 2.5 million “summer people” between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Ah yes — this storied place in the American imagination, associated with the whalers of Nantucket, the moneyed rich of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Kennedys of Hyannis, becomes a nightmare of outrageous hotel rates, long lines at restaurants and attractions, and stand-still traffic along Route 6 from late May to early September. This is what we remembered from an August visit.
But as we discovered, the Cape in late fall is a totally different experience, magical and more beautiful in the equinox than in the summer shine. The light reflected from the Ocean, which artists have long admired, still shimmers and reflects the fading colors of fall, and the moody mist of the Atlantic floats over the seashore like a dream. You are free to enjoy it all, to walk the beaches in early morning, to dine by the fireplace in the country inns, to shop the quaint stores in Chatham or the galleries of Provincetown, because the big crowds are gone, the locals are friendlier, and the hotel rates are reduced. Cape Cod is the perfect Thanksgiving venue.
We stayed in several places there over the years, but our favorite was always The Chatham Bars Inn (photo above). Begun as a semi-private hunting lodge in 1914, it is today a much- expanded grand resort, but one that retains its New England character amid Chatham’s 18th century charm. You can still play croquet on the lawn here, or you can go fishing, hiking, biking, sailing, or whale watching. And you can have the most bounteous, elegant Thanksgiving dinner in a sparkling formal dining room facing the Ocean, whether you are staying at the Inn or not.
Our first Thanksgiving at the Chatham Bars was in 1987, the very first season they began to remain open year round, and our very last Thanksgiving there was 20 years later, before we retired and relocated to Texas. To say that I’ve missed New England in the fall and Cape Cod at Thanksgiving is an understatement.
Somehow the annual Turkey Trot in nearby Cuero is hardly any consolation, even if they do claim to be the “turkey capitol of the world.” Come to think of it, though, I’ve missed that too, since it was held in October.