Feinstein: Thanksgiving Is My Favorite Holiday

From sports to food to cinema, John Feinstein explains why Thanksgiving is the best holiday

John Feinstein
November 26, 2019 - 9:06 am
NFL Thanksgiving Lions

USA Today Images


Everyone has a favorite holiday: mine’s Thanksgiving for a number of reasons. There’s some irony in this in that the word holiday comes from “holy-days,” and Thanksgiving has absolutely nothing to do with religion.
Unless your religion is football in specific or sports in general.
My earliest memories of Thanksgiving are football-related. When I was a kid, we spent our Thanksgivings on Shelter Island, the tiny spot on the eastern end of Long Island—NOT the Hamptons—where my dad bought water-front property in 1961 for $21,000. My brother owns the house now and it’s worth considerably more than that—to put it mildly.
There were several families with kids in my age group who spent Thanksgiving on the island and we’d always play touch football in the morning. If it ever rained or snowed, I don’t remember it happening. All my memories of those game involve cold, sunny days and, most notably, the year I ended a tie game with a pick-six. One of my prouder jock moments.
We always finished in time to go inside at whatever house where we were playing to get hot chocolate and watch Santa Claus arrive at Macy’s. To this day, I love watching Santa arrive. My excuse is that my 9-year-old daughter loves the parade, but I’m pretty sure when she grows out of thinking Santa’s a big deal—which, sadly might be as early as next year—I’ll still watch Santa’s entrance into the Christmas season.
For the record, I come from a family where we celebrated Christmas. My father was raised Orthodox Jewish and rejected all organized religion as an adult. My mom’s family was never religious. She thought Christmas was a better holiday for kids, so we had a tree and Christmas morning was a big deal. Still is for me. So is the day after Thanksgiving when we go out to get our tree.
I’m old enough to remember when the Detroit Thanksgiving Day game was still played in Tigers Stadium. My first hazy football memories are of the famous 1962 game when the Lions beat the Packers, 26-14. The Lions were good that year—11-3—but this was at the height of the Vince Lombardi era and the Thanksgiving Day defeat in Detroit was the Packers’ only loss that season. They finished 13-1 before beating the New York Giants in the NFL championship game. That Lions victory is still celebrated as one of the franchise’s great moments.
When the Lions moved indoors—first to the Silverdome in 1975 and then to Ford Field—the game lost a lot of its romance for me. Easy for me to say: I didn’t have to sit and watch in frigid weather or freezing snow or, for that matter, play in it. Football in bad weather is a lot more romantic when you are watching it from indoors.
Even so, I ALWAYS watch the Detroit game, regardless of who the Lions are playing or how bad the Lions are—and, more often than not, they’re bad. This season is no exception. They’ll come into Thursday’s game with the Bears—who they will be playing on Thanksgiving for the 18th time, including the last two years in a row—with a record of 3-7-1. Their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, easily their best player, is out—probably for the season. The Bears aren’t a lot better at 5-6, but they are better. I suspect my annual day as a Lions fan will end the way most have ended: with the Lions losing. Their overall record dating to that ’62 game is 25-29-2, but there was a nine-game losing streak which began in 2004 that was painful to watch.
Once the Lions game is over, how much more football I watch depends on several factors: the quality of the Cowboys game—it should be decent this year with the 8-3 Bills in town—and what else might catch my eye. Dinner is usually scheduled around kickoff in Dallas, so I rarely see the first half—which is fine.
Once dinner’s over there are a number of options: the game in Dallas; college hoops; The Godfather—by then II is nearing the end and the beginning of I is about to come around again—or dialing up what is arguably my favorite Thanksgiving/Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street—the original, not either of the two truly awful remakes.
The NFL’s night game, which began in 2006 as—surprise—a money grab to make the TV package more lucrative—holds little interest for me in large part because there is no way I’m staying awake beyond halftime, but also because I’ve seen enough football by then.
Still, football is there—a ubiquitous part of the day. I MUCH prefer the presence of football games with the possibility of throwing in some college hoops to what’s available on Christmas: the NBA, the NBA and more NBA. Someone asked me recently the last time I went to an NBA game and I had to think about it for a while before remembering it was a Wizards season-opener several years back when Randy Wittman was still the coach. I went because one of the other Post columnists got sick and I had to stand in for him.
I don’t question the greatness of the league’s best players; I question the meaning of any regular season game played before April. There’s something a bit hypocritical in this because I DO watch NHL regular season games, but a lot of that has to do with having a genuine rooting interest in one of the teams—the Islanders. I gave up on the Knicks when Pat Riley was the coach: couldn’t stand the way the team played and didn’t like Riley much either. I DID pull for the Celtics during the last few years of Red Auerbach’s life because I knew how much it meant to Red—but that’s about it. I will always want to see Steve Kerr’s team do well, but I really don’t watch much until postseason. I probably won’t be doing that this spring.
Thanksgiving’s a lot more fun. Beyond opening presents, Christmas doesn’t have much in the way of traditions for me.
Since I became a father twenty-five years ago, my family has taken up the tradition of lighting Hanukkah candles—at the insistence of my wives, both of whom are Christian. Both felt it important that our children know their heritage—I am culturally Jewish at least—on both sides. That said, my favorite Hanukkah prayer came from my son, Danny, when he was five. My then-wife asked if he wanted to say a Hanukkah prayer and he eagerly said he’d like to do that.
He shut his eyes and said, “Oh God—thank-you for inventing Christmas!”
Sums it up pretty well, I think.
My other favorite holiday used to be New Year’s Day—also non-religious—unless you’re a college football fan. But the greed of the college presidents has pretty much ruined that for me. Yes, I can count on the Rose Bowl to be played at 5 p.m. on New Year’s Day, but that’s about it. Once, there were four major bowls—Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton—all played on New Year’s Day. Then, the Fiesta bullied its way in and there were five. But New Year’s Day was JUST those bowls and when the last of them—Orange or Sugar—ended, that was it, college football season was over.
Then came the BCS and now the CFP—with the most self-important 13 people in the world making up the committee that picks the four teams that play for the national title as if it was naming a Pope. To be fair, I should say that the NCAA basketball committee is right up there when it comes to acting self-important.
Now, I have no idea what bowls—other than the Rose—are played on New Year’s Day, but I know several are second-tier bowls with second-tier teams and they all have corporate names—which often change year-to-year—slapped on them. I watch the Rose Bowl and I will watch Army, Navy and Air Force when they play in bowls. I MIGHT watch the CFP but will usually tape the championship game because I’m not staying up until midnight to be bombarded with corporate drop-ins for four hours on a Monday night. If the game is good, I’ll watch it without sound the next couple days.
So much for those New Year’s traditions.
Thanksgiving still has Detroit—no matter how bad the Lions are and, to a lesser degree (for me) the game in Dallas. It also has the parade with Santa as the climax and Miracle on 34th Street. And, yeah, The Godfather. I mean, what says Thanksgiving better than, “leave the gun, take the canoli?”
I miss Shelter Island and touch football games. I’ve never liked turkey. My mother always made me duck and now my wife makes it for me. I love Thanksgiving.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “Benchwarmers,” the story of an 11-year-old girl who wants to play on the boys sixth-grade soccer team but has to fight a misogynist coach and some of her teammates to get a fair chance to prove herself. His book, “The Prodigy,” which is about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters, but has to fight off his father, agents and equipment reps who want to turn him into a human ATM machine, is now out in paperback. His latest non-fiction work, “Quarterback—the Inside Story of the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,”—is also out in paperback. His new book, “The Back Roads to March,” will be published in (cleverly enough) early March. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com