I am the youngest of six children, all of us readers. My parents had three girls and three boys, a blond, a brunette, and a red-head of each. We grew up in a huge three hundred-year-old farmhouse in northern Massachusetts. Our Thanksgivings were epic events that began with corn chowder the night before and every year before you got your chowder(ah) there would be a book, wrapped in bright paper, at our place at the table.
Only books were given out. It was not a random present, it was always and only a book. When we were young our parents would buy books for each other and when we got old enough we took on the task of getting them each one from "the kids". They were never preachy or "get on the stick" books either. I never got one about financial planning and God knows a diet book never made it to the table.
They served a lot of purposes actually, things that are still as replicable, useful, and practical today as they were when my folks started this tradition over forty years ago. A new book kept us out from under foot the night before. We would all drift off to some corner of the house and start reading so my folks could cook, catch up, and eventually get some reading in before sleep.
The next day, Thanksgiving, started with the local high school rivalry between Amesbury, where I grew up, and Newburyport, the next town over. My Pops would watch the game from the end zone of each team for half the game. He was a graduate of Newburyport High and had, in fact, been its quarterback. As a grown man he settled in Amesbury and owned a pharmacy on Main Street. He swore that he felt as if his side won which ever team came out ahead but I wonder if he didn't secretly stay a Clippers fan and never mention it to spare his Amesbury born and bred children's terribly tender feelings.
Pops would bring folks home after the game for Irish coffee, sometimes it would be a couple of people, sometimes it would be a dozen or more. My mom would slave in the kitchen cooking a Turkey she didn't particularly care for while playing hostess to people she often did not know very well. Amidst all the hustle and bustle we kids could get away for a few quiet minutes with the book we had started the night before. It was great to get out of the chaos and catch our breath with a novel or whatever, even for just half an hour before the extended family arrived.
My grandmother would always be there when I was young and I watched various sisters' boyfriends wolf down second helpings as I got older. Uncles and cousins would show up sometimes. There were college roommates whose parents lived far away, priests, husbands and wives were added to the family eventually then grandchildren. All six kids weren't always there as we got older but the table rarely help less than eight and usually there would be more like ten or a dozen.
After a gluttonous feast there would be more football of course and boardgames and backgammon or cribbage tournaments. At some point, even just before bed, everyone would be back in their book. We are a garrulous family and taken together we can be overwhelming, even to ourselves. A bit of time alone with a book is a great centering moment amidst the holiday bustle.
My mother told me recently that there was another reason, her original reason, for starting the tradition. Sure it made it so that everyone was distracted and she could get some space but it started as thank you gifts to her children. With all the family, friends, and a few strangers set to tramp through the place she set her kids to work getting the big house together. They scrubbed, they polished, they dusted and they all, each of them, loved to read. This was her thanks to them for the work they had done to get ready for the big day.
There you have it. It is a reward for a child's work, a distraction to keep them out from under foot, a spot to find quiet amidst holiday chaos, and an alternative to TV as a way to sleep off the feast. It works to this day. I invite you to join in my family's tradition. Give your loved ones a book at Thanksgiving.
Addendum: Urban Librarians Unite is distributing books to be handed out at community holiday dinners in the Rockaways, Queens. These are areas that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and the books that are going out are donations from a Children's Book Drive we did after the storm. We are only giving out new books (which is the only way to go if you ever want to do something like this). Hopefully about 600-700 kids will get a book to take home from dinner as a gift from a stranger.