With 400,000 or so American troops either in the Persian Gulf or heading that way, many thousands of American families are facing this holiday season with mixed emotions.
For most people, holidays like Thanksgiving are family occasions, times when a missing face can dampen the mood. That's especially true when those absent are facing life-threatening danger.
This holiday season, gloomy headlines are hard to ignore, whether the news is from Washington, Wall Street or the Persian Gulf. The war of nerves between national leaders is reflected in the stress of families across the land. Meanwhile, other families watch the economy and worry about their livelihoods.
In this context, the word "celebrate" may seem to have a hollow ring. Yet the word is appropriate, for "celebrate" does not refer only to merrymaking. In fact, many uses of the word refer to serious occasions, such as celebrating a marriage or a Roman Catholic mass.
In the same way, Americans have long celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday which has religious overtones while not being exclusive to any one group.
Although days of thanksgiving have long been observed in America, generally after the harvest is gathered, it was not until -- 1863 that a U.S. president proclaimed a national day of thanks. If the national mood is somewhat subdued this autumn, perhaps we should look back to that first national celebration, which occurred in the middle of a long and exceptionally bloody civil war.
Considering the horrific casualty levels in those gruesome battles, there must have been plenty of American families, North and South alike, who could have justifiably thought more about their misfortunes than their blessings.
But in addition to all the other expectations we place on them, holidays -- especially a national day of thanks -- can have a healing function as well.
No matter how worried we are, no matter how grim the outlook, when we stop to think about our lives, we usually find that there are many things to be grateful for, that our blessings outweigh or are at least partly balanced by our troubles.
For instance, in many parts of the country military families affected by Operation Desert Shield are banding together in support groups to shore each other up. The bonds of friendships between people facing similar circumstances help provide the strength to deal with trying times.
In fact, support groups of all kinds have become an important part of American life, and for a good reason. In a transient society these small, intimate groups are the new versions of the ties that bind us together. They are the modern substitute for extended families and communities where neighbors knew each other and could be counted on to lend a hand or an ear in times of need.
This holiday season, maybe we can take a cue from thessupport groups and from earlier generations, remembering not what we lack -- the company of family, the safety of loved ones or assurances that everything will be all right -- but rather the things we still have.
As sages have long noted, nothing focuses the mind as effectively as reminders of our mortality. Certainly the prospect of war does that.
But those reminders are what prompt us to take stock -- not just of our worries, but also of the reasons we value the days we are given on this earth.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara kEngram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.