Norman Rockwell’s cover for “The Literary Digest,” November 11, 1919
A day on which we give thanks for all the good things that have come our way. Thanksgiving has its origins in many cultural traditions ranging from harvest festivals to religious days of thanksgiving. The first important harvest festival to be celebrated by immigrants from the Old World took place on December 20, 1620 in the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia. That group had arrived in America in 1607. However, the occasion as we know today is indelibly associated with the Pilgrims who, fleeing religious persecution, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September of 1620. They dropped anchor off Cape Cod 68 days later, finally settling in Plymouth Harbor where they began unloading the ship and building a village. By the end of their first few months in the new land, roughly half of the original 102 passengers had perished from contagious diseases or other illnesses.
Over the following spring and summer, they encountered the Wampanoag, a powerful Native American tribe who had been residents of the area for over 14 thousand years. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to sustain life in the New World. The famous harvest event we now celebrate as Thanksgiving is thought to have taken place sometime between September 21 and November 11 in 1621, when a few of the 52 surviving Pilgrims went out hunting and brought back enough ducks and geese to last several days.
Wild turkey was probably also on the menu as they were plentiful along with fish. The wild turkey is much smaller than the domesticated variety. There was no pumpkin pie as by now they would have run out of whatever flour (meal), butter and sugar that they had brought with them. They could have used pumpkin as a vegetable. Nor was there cranberry sauce. However they did have nuts and berries to add to the table, along with the corn and squash they had harvested during the summer and fall. Cooking methods were limited to spit-roasting and iron pots and pans placed over a fire. They had spoons and knives, but no forks. The Pilgrims were soon joined by a group of about 90 Wampanoag visitors who contributed 5 deer to the feast.
Instead of watching football, they ran races and held shooting matches. Rather than sitting at a formal dining table, they more likely perched on barrels or sat on the ground. This occasion was not a religious event. It was a spontaneous harvest festival celebrating the Pilgrim’s successful crop after their first hard winter in America. They certainly had no idea that they were about to establish an annual tradition. While the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared the notion of harvest festivals, they had very different views on the principle of giving thanks. For the Pilgrims, a day of “Thanks Giving” was a special one consisting of prayers and fasting, not feasting. For the Wampanoag, and other Native American tribes, the giving of thanks was a spiritual tradition practiced on a daily basis.
While Thanksgiving proclamations were sporadically delivered by several Presidents over the next two centuries, the day was first declared an annual national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War. He was prodded into doing so by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine of the day.
Off to Grandmother’s House We Go
And so dear friends, go out into the forest and find your turkeys. You will need help to pluck the 3,500 feathers of same. Shoot your waterfowl and pluck them. Catch and gut your fish. Begin cutting up your squash harvest. Send the children out to pick berries and gather nuts. Prepare your fires and spit. Assign people to watch over the roasting which will take many, many hours. Get out your iron pots, pans, and charger plates which you brought from the old country. Let the feast begin.
QUOTES FOR THE DAY. In olden times, people said a grace, or words of thanks giving, before the meal. Nowadays, people still stay a word or two, but anything goes. So here are a few remarks from various people and times which might be useful to you if you are called upon to carry on the tradition.
Edward Winslow [from Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622. Winslow was a Pilgrim leader and passenger on the Mayflower. He later served 3 times as Governor of Plymouth Colony. This is one of only two original accounts of the event]:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Gladys Widdiss: (former Tribal Elder and current member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Council, Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)
Every day (is) a day of thanksgiving to the Wampanoag . . .(We) give thanks to the dawn of the new day, at the end of the day, to the sun, to the moon, for rain for helping crops grow. . . There (is) always something to be thankful for. .. Giving thanks comes naturally for the Wampanoag.
An Iroquois Prayer (translated by Lewis Henry Morgan, from his League of the Iroquois, 1851)
We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks the rivers and streams which supply us with water. We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and the squash, which give us life. We return thanks to the bushes and trees, which provide us with fruit. We return thanks to the wind which, moving the air, has banished disease. We return thanks to the moon and the stars, which have given us their light, when the sun was gone. We return thanks to our grandfather, He-no,..who has given us his rain. We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficient eye. Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness, and who directs all things for the good of his children.
Benjamin Franklin on the Turkey (an excerpt from a letter written to his daughter in 1784):
John James Audubon, “Wild Turkey Cock,” from his “The Birds of America,”c.1827.
For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison [to the Bald Eagle] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
John Greenleaf Whittier (19th century Quaker poet):
Ah! on Thanksgiving day….
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before.
What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to change the date of Thanksgiving:
President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at Thanksgiving dinner in Warm Springs, Georgia, 1938. Their guests were polio patients housed at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Foundation. From “Life” magazine, photo by Margaret Bourke-White.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving Day was set to take place on the last Thursday of November. In 1939, the last Thursday of the month fell on November 30, leaving only 24 shopping days before Christmas. President Roosevelt, fearing the financial effects of a shortened retail shopping period, changed the date to November 23. This resulted in much controversy and confusion over the next 2 years with some going along with the new date and others stubbornly refusing to do so. In 1941, the President gave in to popular sentiment changed the date of holiday back to the last Thursday in November.
Here is a citizen’s response to his initial proclamation:
Shinnston, W. Va.
August 15, 1939
I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks. Now, there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:
1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday;
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas;
3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday;
4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime;
5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.
With these in view and hoping you will give me some consideration at your next Congress, I remain,
Yours very truly
Shelby O. Bennett
[This letter is in the collection of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library]
Erma Bombeck: (20th century humorist and author)
“What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving? ….Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.”
Ted Allen:(Chef and television personality)
“The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching. Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up.”
Johnny Carson: (Comedian and host of “The Johnny Carson Show).
“Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”
Lizzie Post: (great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, famed etiquette expert)
Ms. Post advises that if you have family members who don’t get along, you should make a seating plan putting them as far away from each other as possible.
Thomas Nast, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869
But what if they get into it anyway and start yelling at each other from across the room? As the host, it’s your responsibility to step in. Turn to the person closest to you, and say something along the lines of, ” guess you two will just have to agree to disagree,” and then have a safer topic in your back pocket like, “Who has seen the new ‘Harry Potter’ movie?” (Unless, of course, the argument was about whether Gryffindor or Ravenclaw is the better house, in which case, find something else to talk about.)
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!
Julia Child: (20th century cook-book author who taught us how to master the art of French cooking).
Contrary to popular belief, Julia did not drop a turkey on the floor and return it to the oven. She did drop a large potato pancake on the stove top while attempting to flip it. In her opinion, the mishap occurred because she failed to approach this culinary feat with “conviction.” The pancake broke into pieces which she then pressed back together saying, “If you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”
Anonymous Old Grace for those in a Hurry:
Good Food, Good Meat. Good God. Let’s Eat.
About 45 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving in the U.S. A turkey has 3500 feathers and 127 bones.The largest turkey ever raised weighed 86 lbs. Be grateful that you didn’t have to pluck or cook that one.
Unlike farm raised turkeys, the wild turkey of Pilgrim days could fly for short periods at a speed of 55 mph and run at 18.
The turkey may have gotten its name from Christopher Columbus, who mistaking America for India, and the turkey for a peacock, called it a Tuka (peacock in Tamil). Or, it may have come from Native Americans who called the bird a “firkee.” Or, it may have come from the noise turkeys make when they’re scared, “turk, turk, turk.” Or, it may have come from somewhere else, i.e. Turkey. Except in Turkey, a turkey is simply called “a big bird.”
The Turkey Trot was originally a dance which started in San Francisco in 1909. People stepped out on the dance floor trying to emulate the behavior of turkeys. More recently, the Turkey Trot has become the name of marathons run on Thanksgiving day. This brings us back to the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony where participants engaged in running matches.
The Turkey Pardon
The Minnesota Turkeys en route to Washington from Badger, Minnesota, 2013. Photo courtesy the Burkel family “Minnesota Turkey” Facebook Page.
Ever since 1989, when George H.W. Bush inaugurated the event, the President pardons a turkey on Thanksgiving. This year, the designated turkey and his alternate, Caramel and Popcorn, were hand-raised by the John Burkel family in Badger, Minnesota. They have been undergoing training to get them used anything that might ruffle their feathers on Pardon Day.That includes being lifted up on a linen covered table, music (Beyonce and Vivaldi), Presidential petting, camera flash bulbs, and curious Secret Service dogs. The Burkel children were participants in the training period. Caramel and Popcorn have already arrived in Washington, D.C. and are staying at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Their care taker is staying in an adjoining room. Following the ceremonial pardon, the two turkeys, will spend their remaining lives at Mount Vernon, Virginia on President George Washington’s estate. They will be escorted to their new digs in a horse-drawn carriage with trumpet fanfare. This is appropriate as George Washington was the first President to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 and he and wife Martha raised turkeys on the estate.
We will end by wishing the pardoned turkeys and all our readers a very fine Thanksgiving.