As I prepare to make not one, but two turkeys this upcoming week, I think back to a column I wrote in 2003 about Thanksgiving in Lingo Yarns, once upon a time when I was editor of this fine rag.
As I read through it now, I reminisce about my girl spawn who was so innocent and young six years ago. My how time flies. Perhaps I'll have an update on Squanto from her next week.
Here is the 2003 column for your pleasure...
When you sit down at the dinner table over this next week, first eating the big turkey, then the myriad of secondary dishes made from the leftovers, it might be food for thought to contemplate these Thanksgiving facts and myths.
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November as established by the United States Congress in 1941. This was a compromise between tradition and a non-binding presidential declaration. Two years before, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that turkey day should be celebrated on the next to last Thursday of November rather than the last Thursday of the month—to lengthen the period of time for the Christmas shopping season. In those years, you see, it was uncool to shop for Christmas until after Thanksgiving but coming out of the depression the middle-class merchants needed all the help they could get. Today, big corporate stores start setting up after Halloween and holiday catalogs begin arriving just after we’ve thrown out all the back-to-school catalogs. “Oh come, all ye faithful…”
Before Roosevelt’s declaration in support of America’s merchants, Thanksgiving had been recognized for only 76 years as an annual event. In 1863 president Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November in an effort to help forge a national identity during the tumultuous divisions between Americans resulting from the Civil War. It was also a way to welcome the huge influx of immigrants coming to America by involving them in a common, American holiday.
Several other presidents had proclaimed days of thanksgiving. James Madison declared the holiday twice in 1815. John Adams proclaimed it in 1798 and 1799 and George Washington in 1789 and 1795. The only thing was, none of these days of Thanksgiving were in the fall. George Washington, while leading the revolutionary forces declared a day of Thanksgiving in December, 1777, but it was a victory celebration for beating the British at Saratoga.
Prior to that, communities would hold Thanksgivings which were primarily glorified harvest festivals. There was no particular day, differing from colony to colony and in unfavorable harvest years some celebrated with a fast. Algonkian tribes in the area held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The first pilgrim’s Thanksgiving was actually the local tribe’s fifth celebration of the year.
We can thank the American Public School system for teaching us that in 1621, the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth celebrated their friendship through a fall feast, which actually was a three-day event. We are taught that the Wampanoags tutored the Pilgrims how to grow foods, how to harvest the native flora and fauna and various survival tactics. It took the Pilgrims two years to get it right because it wasn’t until 1623 that they had enough food to hold another feast.
Today, the USDA estimates that 269 million turkeys were raised in 2003, with a good portion allocated to the annual gorge fest. Most families enjoy turkey, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and for desert, pumpkin pie. These, most Americans believe (like they believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11), were the dishes served to the Pilgrims by the Indians. Historians believe that turkey was probably not served at the first Thanksgiving. Nor was corn on the cob, mashed potatoes or pumpkins in any form. What they agree on is that cranberries were most likely served in some fashion, as well as venison, other fowl like geese and ducks and probably some kind of squash and breads made from ground corn, but not on the cob.
I asked my daughter, age seven, what she knew about Thanksgiving.
“I know about when they first celebrated it, they celebrated it with Indians. They were celebrating thanks to people for helping them,” she said.
“What did they eat?” I asked her.
“They ate turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberries, cider, fruit, cider sauce…” she said.
Her eyes lit up when I asked about Squanto. She told me this tale.
“Squanto, um, he was hunting for food and then he saw this place with the pilgrims and they were talking and then they became friends. And then, um, Squanto came back and brought another friend and that other friend was very nice and he taught them other stuff too. And then Squanto came back with a bunch of Indians and then his second friend, um, he came and told them stuff that he needs to know. He needed to know how the Indians were doing.”