Ah, Thanksgiving… turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie. Football, parades and feasting with family. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. Well, sort of. Many myths have sprung up around the holiday and many traditions have, too. It’s time to take a look at the history and traditions of American Thanksgiving.
A Disputed Origin
Thanksgiving is, for all intents and purposes, a belated harvest festival. Before Americans adopted the tradition, American Indians, Europeans, and many other cultures celebrated the harvest season with feasts and offerings to their gods as thanks for their bounty.
It’s generally believed that the feast at Plymouth Colony was the first Thanksgiving in North America. But the first feast between arriving foreigners and Natives took place in 1541, when Francisco de Coronado and his expedition broke bread with the natives at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle. Some historians say that a similar feast held in Florida was the first, with French Huguenots celebrating on June 30th of 1564. Others point to Jamestown colony in 1609 and Roanoke in 1586. Then again, maybe it was Ponce de Leon in 1513 near what is now St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Plymouth feast lasted three days, with Pilgrims and American Indians both contributing to the meal. But turkey wasn’t on the menu. According to the narrative of colonist Edward Winslow, “wild fowl” was served. It was never specified which fowl he meant. It could also have been duck or geese. What we do know is that venison, shellfish and lobster were served, along with nuts, bread made with wheat flour, pumpkins, squashes, carrots, and peas.
The Pilgrims didn’t wear the clothes in which they are pictured in modern illustrations. Buckles were too expensive: buttons and laces would have held their clothing together. In the 19th century, illustrators searched for a costume to use in drawings for the holiday. They settled on a style of clothing that was popular among the fashionable in 17th century England.
How Thanksgiving Became A National Holiday
George Washington wanted a national Thanksgiving celebration when he was President and suggested this in a 1789 address. He had the support of a number of other Founding Fathers. . . except for Thomas Jefferson, who thought a national day of Thanksgiving was “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Lincoln finally made it an official holiday by proclamation in 1863, designating it as the last Thursday of November. Many southern states weren’t supportive of Thanksgiving at first. They were not happy about the federal government telling them to celebrate and felt that it was a “New England” holiday. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
Despite Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calling for a day of thanks, the date of Thanksgiving was not fixed until 1941, when FDR signed a bill setting the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. He moved it up a week to help the economy and lengthen the Christmas shopping season.
Republicans were not down with this change and retaliated by calling it “Democrat Thanksgiving” (or “Franksgiving”). They celebrated the following Thursday, calling it “Republican Thanksgiving.” Many Republican governors defied the new date and observed the holiday on the last Thursday of the month, anyway. Eventually, they gave in and the current date of Turkey Day was set.
The Shopping Frenzy We Either Hate Or Love
“Black Friday” began in the 1960s in Philadelphia, which was the mall capital of America at that time, and Philadelphians coined the term to refer to the mass of shoppers that came out to shop the day after Thanksgiving. Later, retailers put their spin on the name, saying it described their hoped-for profit on that day. They took it from the term to be “in the black,” or making a profit. I think that some of them have abused the privilege. Several retailers have even begun to open on Thanksgiving day, itself, to the consternation of many.
So, we know that the day after Thanksgiving is a big shopping day for presents, but did you know that the day before Thanksgiving is the biggest day for bar and liquor sales? Experts think that this is because of the long holiday weekend and having — or being — guests. Then again, it could be that some folks are laying in a supply to help them handle the relatives.
The word “turkey” came from a corruption of the Hebrew word “tukki,” which means “big bird.” Columbus’ Jewish interpreter, Luis de Torres, dubbed the wild birds “tukki” because they looked somewhat like peacocks to him. Some linguists maintain that it originated from “tuka,” the Tamil word for peacock. Either way, it’s an exotic word for our original wild birds.
Abraham Lincoln inadvertently started the pardoning of turkeys on Thanksgiving, accidentally. He informally pardoned his son Tad’s pet, Jack the Turkey. Other presidents did the pardoning thing but sporadically. In 1947, Harry Truman made it official. For a time, the pardoned birds went to live out their lives at Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch, in California, or Disney World in Florida. Since 2010, though, the turkeys have gone to live in various other places, including the Mt. Vernon estate in Virginia.
An estimated 242 million turkeys were raised in the U.S. in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is the lowest it’s been in almost three decades. The bad news is that turkey prices are up this year — 12%, from 72 cents/lb to 81 — because of the low number raised. Your price will be around $1.15 per pound. The average Thanksgiving turkey dinner will cost an average of $49.41 this year, which is up 37 cents from last year.
Let’s bust the myth about tryptophan. The amount in most turkeys isn’t enough to make you drowsy. Beef and cheese both have more. Rather, scientists say, it’s the booze, the feast or simply relaxing. But, heck, it’s a 4-day weekend so go ahead and have a catnap after dinner. That way you’ll be sharp for those evening board games. Or video games, depending on how you roll.
Thanksgiving Pigskin Mania
The tradition of football on turkey day was popularized by Yale and Princeton, who played their first game in 1876. In 1934, the NFL decided to get in on that action and the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears. Detroit has played every Thanksgiving Day game save for during WWII. The Dallas Cowboys horned in on the audience in 1966, letting us have two Thanksgiving games. That first game between the Lions and Bears was first broadcast on NBC Radio in 1934. In 2014, the Lions will play the Bears while the Cowboys take on the Eagles. In 2013, a third game was added and it seems that may be the norm from here on out. The third game this year is between rivals the Seahawks and the 49ers. Pick your favorite, grab a beer and cheer your team on. It may keep you from falling asleep.
What’s Thanksgiving Without A Parade?
Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924 was held with live animals from the Central Park Zoo and was billed as “The Christmas Parade.” This was the parade for the next three years. Then, in 1927, Goodyear sponsored a giant balloon of Felix the Cat, starting that tradition. Until 1933, the balloons were just released to float off into the sky at the end of the parade and $100 given by Macy’s to whoever found a deflated balloon. That stopped when a pilot trying to grab a loose balloon, crashed his plane and died. Mickey Mouse made his debut seven years later. Kermit the Frog came along in 1985. Snoopy, who joined the parade in 1968, holds the record for most appearances in the parade, with seven. The parade route was moved to its present starting point at 77th and Central Park West in 1946. It was first televised nationally in 1947, drawing respectable viewership. Fifty years ago, the parade was almost cancelled due to the assassination of JFK, but it was felt that the nation needed it, so the show went on. Each year, approximately 3.5 million people line the streets to watch the parade live while another 50 million or so watch it on TV. NBC began repeating the parade later in the day for those who were too exhausted by Thanksgiving preparations to get up early enough to view it live. Thank goodness!
What’s Thanksgiving Without Pumpkin Pie?
Many of us look forward to, not only the feast, but to dessert. Some people believe that it’s just not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie dates back much further than our belated harvest celebration. In Medieval times, pumpkin would be stewed with sugar and spices and wrapped in pastry. The French probably developed the recipe closest to our own, modern one (some might want to call it “Freedom pie,” now) which appeared in a 15th century cookbook, The French Cook.
Early Colonial settlers, unable to bake actual pies for lack of proper ovens, would add milk, honey and spices to a cleaned pumpkin shell and bake that in hot ashes. They learned this from the local Natives, who brought pumpkins and squash as gifts to the settlers. It is possible that a translated copy of The French Cook was available to Plymouth colony cooks, but the pumpkin pie as we know it did not appear in American cooking until 1796. Amerlia Simmons, in her book American Cookery, By An American Orphan, gave a recipe for a custard-style pumpkin pudding pie. This was refined through the years into the dessert we now associate with Thanksgiving. Some genius thought to serve it with whipped cream at some point and now we enjoy a very American dessert.
Native Hawaiians celebrate their own “Thanksgiving” festival. Known as “Makahiki;” it is the time of year dedicated to the agriculture and fertility god, Lono. For four months, starting in late October, all war was suspended as the Hawaiians feasted, played games, danced and generally made merry while Lono was in charge. A tiki of Lono, trimmed with ferns and feathers, was carried around each island. As it passed, that marked the start of the makahiki season. When Ku took over again at the end of January (these are approximate as the Hawaiians had a lunar calendar), a canoe with offerings to Lono was set adrift.
The Christmas song “Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. It was originally composed for a Thanksgiving program at his church in Savannah, Georgia. Originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh,” it became so popular that it was sung again on Christmas. It is now one of the best-known carols of all time.
If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you can try this instead: every year on Alcatraz Island the International Indian Treaty Council has an “Unthanksgiving Day.” A sunrise ceremony, it began in 1975, four years after the American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz in 1969, to commemorate the struggles of the indigenous native people. The group held the island for almost a year and a half, from November 2 until June 11, 1971. They chose Alcatraz as a “big enough symbol” for them to be taken seriously. The event is open to the public.
That’s just some of the lore surrounding this most wonderful holiday. Whether you have a turkey and all the trimmings or go vegan, have a small dinner or a huge feast, we send you our best wishes for a safe and enjoyable holiday. Let the ritual of the yams commence!
A Taste of Thanksgiving: Curious Facts About America’s Holiday (Outhouse Trivia Books) by Christopher Forest
Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions by Pauline Campanelli and Dan Campanelli
Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Warren Beckwith