Served Up on a Platter

Thanksgiving started at our house last Friday evening at 8:35 p.m. That’s when we picked up our daughter Gracie, returning from college, at LaGuardia Airport.

I make a point of stretching out holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July, birthdays—as long and wide as possible. The world serves up enough opportunities to be depressed, so it’s my sincere belief that we should seize any excuse to celebrate.

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Rob Shepperson

But for some reason, Thanksgiving tops them all for generating anticipation. I have several theories why: It’s closely associated with food— particularly turkey of both the poultry and chocolate persuasions; it marks the start of the holiday season, culminating in Christmas and presents; and you can’t beat the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, if parades are your thing. And even if they’re not, what’s not to like about five-story high balloons?

But I think the main reason I love Thanksgiving is because it recalls one of the most vivid periods in my own life, and I suspect that of many others. It was so filled with excitement and joy that its embers still burn bright into adulthood, and probably will in old age, too.

That moment is the one Gracie entered as she descended the escalator and into our arms from her Delta flight from Ohio. As happy as she was to see us, and we her, our reunion was just the preliminaries, the pregame festivities.

What I’m talking about is when you return from college freshman year and see your high-school friends for the first time in months. I’m going back a ways so that while I have no problem reliving the exhilaration, I may have trouble breaking it down into its component parts.

But I’ll try. Part of it, obviously, has to do with the fact that while you’re still you, you’re also utterly new and different and fabulous. If first semester was fun, if you managed to adapt to what, for many, is their first prolonged absence from family, and taste of independence, you’re coming home with a greater sense of autonomy and self-assurance than when you departed in August.

Everybody wants to show off his or her new and improved persona. So what if one have an alarming cough, as Gracie did when she greeted us.

And while I have no doubt that the exercise of reuniting with high-school classmates, or newly minted college friends in town, or mingling the two, applies across the land—in cities big and small, suburbs and country towns—my own prejudice, because I grew up here, and because I know I’m right, is that the anticipation is all the greater because the backdrop is New York City.

No matter where you go to college—whether a small country school, as Gracie does and I did; the Ivy League; or a state university—it’s all small-time compared to the Big Apple. When you come back, you’re not only returning to the bosom of your friends and family, but also that of this city.

And at a time of year when New York is at it’s best. It’s still more fall than winter; there’s a mild note to the air. Yet the holiday decorations are already up around town, so that the city is more upbeat and attractive than at other times of year. (Is it too much to believe that those blinking lights and large shopping crowds are celebrating your homecoming, too?)

Then there’s the actual holiday—the parade and the Thanksgiving meal. I realize the parade isn’t as integral to many people’s lives as it is to mine. Because I grew up along the parade’s route and my mother still lives there, it’s the one ritual that I’ve observed without interruption every autumn of my increasingly elongated life.

I’ll confess that the balloons don’t hold quite the same sway that they did when I was 4 or 5 (though I think that’s less to do with becoming jaded than because the characters aren’t as epic as they once were. Who would you rather have float by your window—Superman or SpongeBob SquarePants?)

Perhaps my favorite part of the entire day is descending to the street after the parade, the confetti on Central Park West still swirling in the breeze as the Sanitation Department’s sweepers try valiantly to herd it away, and crossing Central Park.

If you’re of a certain inclination, the suspicion that life is meaningless, that this planet floating in the darkness is nothing more than a spectacular accident, is never far from your mind. But contrast that to how much more magical Thanksgiving Thursday feels than a random Thursday any other week of the year. Reality, it seems, is a reassuring creation of our imaginations, and occasionally a lovely one. Even the park feels different, more relaxed, as if the trees and grass, the bridges and fountains are in on the fix.

At our house, we have not one but two Thanksgiving dinners—separated, on my part at least, by a profound and essential nap. First we go to my wife’s sister’s home on Long Island for Thanksgiving lunch, then return to the city for Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s.

I’d be lying if I said I looked forward to the second turkey as much the first, the evening meal more about drinking, socializing and recuperating from the first.

And the next morning we head upstate. Regrettably, without Gracie. She has better things to do in the city. But as I said, part of what makes Thanksgiving special is that it serves as the gateway to the holiday season. The pleasure of our daughter’s company hardly has time to subside before she’s back again for winter break.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared November 21, 2012, on page A20 in the