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Thanksgiving holds fast to tradition

When Barre Toelken was growing up in central Massachusetts, Thanksgiving was the big event of the fall season, heralded by obligatory school essays and obligatory table fare (two kinds of cranberry sauce and four kinds of pies).

Now that he's living in Oregon, Mr. Toelken says his celebration of the holiday has become even more traditional. ''It's something that's almost a patriotic duty for a New Englander,'' he explains with a hint of a broad-vowel accent.

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Mr. Toelken's interest in this most American of holidays is both personal and professional. Not only is his family on both his mother's and father's side descended from Mayflower Pilgrims, but he is considered one of the foremost folklorists in the United States.

A professor of English at the University of Oregon, Mr. Toelken has written what many consider to be one of the definitive works on American folklore, ''The Dynamics of Folklore'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin). One chapter of the book takes an intriguing look at how family traditions in celebration of Thanksgiving have evolved in various regions of the country.

''The point I try to make in the book is that folklore is an ongoing process, '' Professor Toelken explains. ''It isn't just old stuff that gets passed along among illiterates or backward folks. It's something that we make variations on all the time, according to family custom or regional custom or ethnic background. It's the kinds of things that connect us to the past, as well as the things that continue to relate us to the people around us.''

In Mr. Toelken's family, for example, one great-grandfather was a fiddler and fiddlemaker, and one uncle made guitars. Although it seemed natural that traditional songs and hymns be included in the Thanksgiving celebration, that wasn't always the case.

''My father's family were settlers on the New England coast, and they liked to sing a couple of whaling songs as a kind of memorial for the people who'd gone down at sea,'' he says. ''My mother's family, on the other hand, came from a real Puritan background and didn't believe in singing. So there was always the question each year of where the Thanksgiving dinner would be held and what would take place afterwards in the way of music.''

In the interviews he conducted for his study, Mr. Toelken compared the holiday traditions of two rural families - one from New England with a background of English customs, and one from Oregon which had a Swiss and German background. Both families' celebrations, he found, centered on the traditional dinner.

The New Englanders rarely invited people outside the immediate family to the dinner. At the start of the day, the men gathered outside or in the den, while all the women went to work in the kitchen. Not only were the sex roles clearly divided, but certain foods had to be included in the feast: Some kind of bird, usually a turkey, was served, with the tender ''oysters'' going to the senior relatives present and the legs and drumsticks being distributed among the fussiest children. Sweet potatoes, small stewed onions, squash, peas, cranberry sauce, and pies completed the menu, and a discussion of family history usually contributed to the dinner-table conversation.

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Foods served at the Oregon family's celebration were in many ways similar: celery and onion stuffing for the traditional bird (either roast chicken or duck), canned vegetables instead of New England squashes (the family had not owned a refrigerator until the late 1930s), homemade pickles instead of cranberry sauce, and several kinds of baked pies. The dinner was usually held at the home of someone on the maternal side of the family, and conversation tended to turn to family anecdotes. Most significantly, perhaps, the family thought of its celebration of Thanksgiving as primarily an American event, a confirmation of its conversion to American culture.

''What we found was that the celebration of Thanksgiving was much more consistent than that of other holidays,'' Professor Toelken notes. ''Although ours is a free country and you can do anything you want to do, at Thanksgiving most people do what their families have always done. For example, they're not likely to have relatives over for dinner and then announce at the door that they've decided to serve pizza.''

Although Thanksgiving had its origins in the harvest home festival in England , Professor Toelken says that over the years the celebration has become more symbolically American. ''The foods used, for example, are not just harvested things but particularly New World things, like squash and corn and turkey. What we eat is a symbolic way of saying we've become tenants in the New World - that we came and made it our own. In recent years, we've been serving turkeys more and more, instead of chickens or geese as we used to 30 or 40 years ago, and I think that's a return to the symbol of the original wild turkey. It indicates that the traditions aren't dying out, but intensifying.''

Professor Toelken says he has to laugh at the thought of the ''heavy'' statements he's making about food traditions, but ''food lore,'' he explains, is one subject that folklorists and anthropologists the world over find pretty exciting to talk about.

''It's no good for your figure,'' he chuckles, ''but it is important. These days, when Americans move so often and are so relatively rootless, any kind of ritual that makes us sense our family connections in a land that we've only been in for a couple of hundred years is a powerful statement.''

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