Free yams for soldiers in Texas and a lollipop drive in Tennessee

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Chicago, a group of friends cooked a Thanksgiving feast for America's newest pilgrims: 150 Somali refugees who'd never tasted cornbread stuffing or cranberry sauce.

In Symmes Township, Ohio, kindergartners have been turning their daily grind - making beds, setting dinner tables, and bumping trash bags along the driveway - into a pool of "chore" money to buy 735 pounds of nonperishables for a local food bank.

In New Jersey, a prosecutor's office is collecting yams and brownies for crime victims, "to let them know we're thinking about them," says Elaine O'Neal, who runs the Thanksgiving program at the Union County Prosecutor's Office.

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Across the country, Americans are giving in ways as familiar as Uncle Henry's stuffing and as dependable as the after-dinner mess - but with plenty of new twists, too.

There are any number of Salvation Army turkey roasts to feed the homeless, and the usual "turkey trot" races, with townies in spandex working up appetites as they raise money for the needy. But there's also Michael Weist, the Tennessee second-grader who's collecting over 600 lollipops - with headquarters at his aunt's beauty salon - for children at a local hospital whose treatments irritate their throats.

In many ways, it's been a challenging winter in a land of plenty, with world events - the war in Iraq, a lingering sense of 9/11 vulnerability, and an ongoing terrorist threat - adding to the angst of a tense election and the devastation of the Southeast by a quartet of hurricanes. And some say that's renewed a philanthropic impulse even in areas of the country suffering from donor fatigue.

Still, say experts on giving, America has always been an exceptionally generous country - one with "an underlying disposition of people who care," says Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. And that's particularly true during the holidays, with "the softening of the heart of that Christmas and Thanksgiving spirit." But beyond simple awareness of the needy, outreach and Thanksgiving go together like, well, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Outside Dallas, a combination of that Thanksgiving impulse and the toll of war in Iraq have spurred the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center to serve some 300 servicemen and women, many on their way to Iraq or coming home.

The program, dubbed "We've Got Your Back," came about when a radio host in Dallas received a letter from his son in Iraq. Thinking that the missive could be his last letter home, the soldier remembered how his father supported him when he was growing up - and promised to do the same for his father in spirit, should he himself be killed.

That touched the community so deeply that the resort - six minutes from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport - is preparing a Thanksgiving feast for servicemen and women passing through the airport on Thursday.

"We get so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives, we forget how much work they are doing for us," says Ty Thoren, executive chef at the resort. "But they have been suffering for so long. We had to do something."

Most Americans imagine the first Thanksgiving as a feast spread out on Plymouth Rock in 1621, born of the Puritans' gratitude for native Americans' advice on planting crops after a rough and deadly winter. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed November's fourth Thursday a national holiday in 1863 as a way to honor those early settlers and celebrate opportunity in a fledgling nation. But in four centuries, the menu of cranberry sauce and roast turkey has morphed to include everything from chipotle biscuits to meatless Tofurky with low-carb stuffing.

When Grace Masi and her friend Dorothy Riley decided to welcome new African immigrants in Chicago, they had to make some adjustments. They ate right at sundown, since their dinner fell during Ramadan with its requisite all-day fasts. And the real celebration came after the feast, when most Americans are washing dishes and loosening belts.

A few guests whipped out drums, and others started dancing. Ms. Masi was too intimidated to join in, but some of the Americans did, and the room filled with music and bright, billowing scarves. Next year, she says, will be an encore performance.

Except for those Chicago drums, raucous football rivalries, a few broken plates, and children's shrieks over airborne floats in the Macy's parade, Thanksgiving is generally a staid affair - or at least a time of familiar faces. But in New Hampshire, one home offers a haven for drifters, a cross between Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want" and Lollapalooza: tattoo artists, college students, squatters, and punk-rock legends - many of whom rail against suburbia in their lyrics - with a soft spot for Pilgrims and apple pie.

Sean and Mara Perry, members of the legendary New Hampshire punk outfit the Tunnel Rats, host the feast for 40 every year. This Thursday, they'll offer two turkeys - one deep fried, the other oven-baked - along with two kinds of grits and casseroles starring Velveeta and Cheez Whiz.

"It just started with anybody who didn't have anything else to do, and now it's turned into significant others, college students, [and] friends of friends," says Ms. Perry, a Latvian who's the backbeat of the Tunnel Rats. "We're all just thankful we have all our friends, and that we have somewhere to be."

The house cats, however, want no part in the Thanksgiving punk-rock jam - or the holiday wishes of Thumper the Dachshund and Travis, the one-eyed German shepherd.

Gratitude for that "somewhere to be" - and the flights and car trips there and back - are perhaps the modern version of celebrating a bumper crop. For volunteers striving to create some semblance of home for those without a destination or a doorstep, that sense of shelter is key. In Pennsylvania, though, one restaurant is moving away from the standard soup-kitchen fare, and infusing dinner with a foie-gras feel.

Angelo's Italian is one of the finer restaurants in Washington, Pa., but for many in the former steel town, it's far out of reach. That will change on Thursday, when anyone who stops by gets a free turkey feast with upscale trimmings.

It's part of a massive charity effort begun 10 years ago by restaurant owner Michael Passalacqua.

"This is a really nice restaurant," says Courtney Dotson, who works in an area welfare-to-work program and waits tables at the restaurant and on Thanksgiving "it's really homey." This year, it's especially important, with so many in the area still reeling from floods that destroyed their homes and belongings and swept away the trimmings of their lives. "I just think it's a nice way for you to realize what you are thankful for."

Kris Axtman in Houston; Patrik Jonsson in Raleigh, N.C.; Mary Beth McCauley in Philadelphia; and Amanda Paulson in Chicago contributed to this report.

Thanksgiving by the numbers

263 million The preliminary estimate of the number of turkeys raised in the US in 2004, with Minnesota the leading state. That's down 4 percent from 2003, when all the turkeys weighed in at 7.5 billion pounds altogether and were valued at $2.7 billion.

658 million pounds The forecast US cranberry production in 2004, up 6 percent from 2003.

More than half is produced in Wisconsin, followed by Massachusetts and Oregon.

1.6 billion pounds The total weight of sweet potatoes produced in the United States in 2003. North Carolina was the leading producer.

$5.8 millioN America's international trade deficit in wild turkeys in the first seven months of the year, offset by an $11.8 million trade surplus in sweet potatoes.

14 poundS The amount of turkey consumed by the typical American in 2002, including hearty portions on Thanksgiving and the days after. Consumption is virtually the same as in 1990 (13.8 pounds), but 70 percent higher than in 1980 (8.1 pounds).

20 Number of places in the US named Plymouth, as in "Plymouth Rock," legendary place where the Pilgrims landed. Plymouth, Minn., is the most populous, with 69,164 residents..

Source: US Census Bureau

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