St. John's holiday feast celebrates the American spirit

Annual event at college president's home serves up a taste of liberal arts with turkey

November 22, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Thanksgiving at the home of St. John's College president Christopher Nelson will not involve watching football on the big screen

Instead, tomorrow's gathering of 50 will bring Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln - or at least their memorable words - to the table. The occasion, perfectly suited to the Annapolis college, calls for each guest to read an excerpt or two from great American speeches, statements, poetry or literature.

Most of the invitees are liberal arts students staying on campus this week because their families are in American cities or foreign countries too far away to visit for the short holiday. They are akin to modern-day pilgrims, Nelson said. A handful of faculty members and family friends are also expected to attend the banquet, which promises to be more than an intellectual feast.

Nelson and his wife, Joyce, plan to whip up the cranberry relish, stuffing, sweet potatoes, fresh-baked bread and sour cream apple pies for a sit-down dinner at several tables near a roaring fireplace. Others will help roast a few birds to add up to the desired 70 pounds of meat. It's a drill they've done for more than a dozen years.

"Thanksgiving is a good time to make room for one another," the college president said. "A good time to open our houses and share what we have."

Patricia Dempsey, a college spokeswoman, said the custom reflects the "welcoming community" of the small, private college, founded as a colonial school three centuries ago. Francis Scott Key, the lawyer who composed the lyrics to the national anthem, graduated in the Class of 1796.

To this day, students are known for their earnest study of a Western civilization "great books" curriculum, with ancient Greek as a starting point.

Dinner at the Nelsons will be served at 3, but not before the group partakes of a potpourri of American thought on the mansion's porch.

"I open with a kind of welcome," Nelson said. "We read the words of George Washington on this national feast day, and Lincoln's declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday."

The Civil War president's proclamation took place in the darkest hours of the war, he noted. The Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln delivered in the fall of 1863, is also on the agenda.

There's also a taste of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution and the poem Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 about poor, tired masses of immigrants coming to America "yearning to breathe free" - inscribed on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty in New York's harbor.

Famous words of the anti-slavery crusader Frederick Douglass, women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony, President John F. Kennedy and astronaut Neil Armstrong are in the repertoire. A Walt Whitman poem will be read aloud, celebrating America as a vibrant young nation. Even the practical Ann Landers, the late advice columnist, is quoted.

Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" didn't make the cut, but "America the Beautiful" will be sung.

After all that, then it's time for grub. Said Nelson: "The food manages to stay pretty warm."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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