Liminality is a special interest of mine. Liminal, from the Latin limen, meaning "threshold," refers to the state of being between states, of being on the border, caught in transition between two things—not one thing or another.
Stand in a doorway: you are liminal in the most basic, literal sense...you are neither inside nor outside. The concept is related to that of "limbo," the name for the state of afterlife that is neither Heaven nor Hell in medieval European thought, and now the word is applied to any realm or state that is "on the edge," or suspended-between. Psychologists talk of liminal mental states, being caught in the midst of some rite of passage, neither quite out of the old state nor quite all into the next. (I myself could be said to be passing from one liminal state to another right now: from my long unemployment, itself a liminal state, to a state as a "temp to perm" contract worker: neither unemployed nor completely employed. In fact, I'm also halfway between being a temp and a real employee, not quite being either...but I digress.)
Folklore has always been fascinated with liminality, with between-ness. Times and places seen as borders are given magical significance. We carry brides across the threshold because the liminality is dangerous—the liminality of both her place (neither inside nor outside) and her personal state (neither single nor quite married—after the wedding but before the sex, in the old way of thinking, made you a married virgin, a contradiction in terms) combining to make her doubly in danger. Various spirit-beings (themselves liminal) were believed to desire human wives and be willing to abduct them; next to babies, new wives were said to be the favorite prey of the Fair Folk. Heroes who were blessed with magical protection always had a loophole of liminality whereby they could be killed. Lleu Llaw Gyffes could be killed neither "during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked," etc. A murder attempt was made at dusk, under an open roof, when he had one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat, while wrapped in a fishing net, etc. etc.
Twilight and dawn (neither day nor night) are the liminal times of day. In the words of one of the eeriest-sounding of the classic Disney songs:
Halfway in day
And halfway in night
Lies a world half in shadow
And halfway in light...
That's why Rod Serling chose "The Twilight Zone" as the name of his show about weirdness and surreality—because it was one of those spooky, half-way, threshold times.
The Celtic days of Sowen (Samhain) and Beltane - Halloween and May Day - were borders of the year, the threshold between Summer and Winter, and therefore times when the spirit world was closer to the physical one. This is why Halloween is scary; the world of the dead is closer to the world of the living. The soltices and equinoxes, to the more astronomically-minded, were the liminal times when the sun changed direction or the daylight and darkness were evenly matched. They were also considered dangerously liminal. Telling ghost stories used to be a traditional Christmas game; that's why Charles Dickens wrote a ghost-filled Christmas story.
Which brings me to Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving occupies a strange place in the American consciousness: it lies halfway between Halloween and Christmas, and shares symbolism with both of them. Pumpkins, gourds, and Indian corn? Check. Snowy weather and a big, turkey-based family dinner? Check. It's ostensibly a harvest festival, but held much too late in the year to actually be one. (In its European homelands, Halloween was traditionally the last day of harvest, the day when anything left in the fields should be left to the spirits of the dead that roamed free that night...having been touched by the spirit world, it became "liminal food" of a sort, and dangerous to the living.)
In England, from which the bulk of our American culture descends, there's no Thanksgiving to get in the way; after Halloween, the Christmas season starts. Retailers in the U.S. treat Thanksgiving as a little intruder in their Christmas advertising; they dedicate a little section to novelty turkey and Pilgrim items, but otherwise ignore it. Thankgiving is too non-commercial a holiday for anyone (but grocery stores) to really profit from it, so it's little more than a little harvest-colored hiccup in the otherwise firmly red and green Christmas décor.
This used to bother me. As a kid I (ike most young children) had an overdeveloped sense of propriety: things should only happen at the proper times and places, and people who violated the proper sequence of events ought to be ashamed. "Christmas doesn't begin until after Thanksgiving. They're not supposed to put up Christmas stuff until then!"
As I grew older I started to wonder: what was the deal with Thanksgiving? The Pilgrims could not possibly have had their First Thanksgiving in November; it was way too cold then. (It was held somewhen between September 21 and November 9, most likely in "very early October," according to mayflowerhistory.com; the Canadian Thankgiving, on the first Monday of October, reflects this more traditional timing.) How the heck did this harvest festival get shunted so late in the year? Why, to the dismay of family cooks with little time on their hands, is one huge-turkey-feast held only a month after another?
The answer, I discovered, had to do with those same Pilgrims who started the whole thing. More generally, it was the Puritans.
You see, the Puritans wanted to celebrate Christmas without, you know, celebrating Christmas. Christmas, back in those days, was less a family holiday and more a license to party: filled with drunken antics, lewd behavior, and general naughtiness, it was a time to cut loose and go wild. It was really more like our modern New Years, minus the countdown; or like the American St. Patrick's day, minus the Irish symbolism. You got drunk, you danced, you gambled, and if you were lucky you got laid, or at least got to flirt outrageously and cop a few feels. Christmas, before the Victorians got to it, was like one big frat party—and it lasted for twelve days.
Can you see the Puritans putting up with that in their new homeland? Yeah, I didn't think so.
Many Puritan communities banned Christmas outright. As America grew larger, many people came over who were not Puritan and they brought Christmas and its extended party-time spirit over with them. This created conflict, as non-Puritans wanted to celebrate and many lower-echelon Puritans began to think a little bit of merriment might be nice once in a while.
So what some Puritan folks did was try something a little sneaky: over to one side was this other holiday, this harvest festival born of one of the few peaceful interactions with the European settlers and the Native Americans: a harvest thanksgiving feast. It expressed what they felt was the proper spirit for a holiday (a Holy Day): quiet and reverent gratitude toward God for His generosity. You got to eat hearty and spend a day relaxing (well, the menfolk did, anyway) but the license to revel in debauchery could be discouraged.
So over the years, the Puritans made Thanksgiving into a kind of substitute Christmas. They shoved it later in the year and made it their last-feast-before-the-deprivations-of-deep-winter celebration.
That is why Thanksgiving is so late in the year. That is why it draws from the symbols of both Harvest and Solstice celebrations, yet is not fully part of either. It is a celebration that is all about the New World (including, of course, elements of Native American harvest festivals) yet is steeped in enough traditional rituals from the Old World to seem almost as ancient as them. It is a time to relax and party, and has become nearly a secular celebration (something that would, of course, have appalled the Puritans), yet it has retained a Puritan sense of unadorned domesticity—it's a small and homelike celebration, not a society-wide mass festival. It has resisted the lures of commercial or celebratory excess, and most of its traditions (except for the football) would probably please the Puritans' strait-laced little hearts.
Thanksgiving is, in fact, a kind of liminal holiday: neither one thing nor another. It is a liminal time that resists all the eerie associations of most liminal times. This has the odd effect of making it a liminal thing itself, by virtue of its very non-liminality.
That's the kind of contradiction that the Fair Folk and Rod Serling just loved to wallow in. I can't help but think they both would have approved.