11 November 2010

The History of Thanksgiving

*My recent column in "About Covington to Madison" Magazine


Hello everyone! Good to be back with you once again. November already! Hard to believe, isn't it? Fall is in full force; college football is hitting the homestretch (and as a UGA man, I'll be “giving thanks” once this season is finally behind us); and Thanksgiving is just around the corner.


Many people consider Thanksgiving their favorite holiday—myself included. It's all about the gratitude we feel for the things we have and the people we love. Also, the traditional feast of turkey, dressing, and the rest of the fixins is pretty darned good. Some would also argue that while Thanksgiving has the food, family, and fellowship of Christmas, it doesn't have the stress and hustle and bustle that sometimes leads up to the December holiday. Of course, I think the people who say that usually aren't the ones doing the cooking! But what about the history of this wonderful holiday?


We all remember the story we learned in elementary school about the Pilgrims and Indians coming together for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock. And while it wasn't quite so simple (and maybe not quite completely accurate either), that basic story is pretty much true. In 1621, the Pilgrims, led by William Bradford, had a three day feast to give thanks for their first successful harvest and invited several of the local Wampanoag Indians including their leader Massasoit. Also in attendance was Squanto--the Indian who translated for the Pilgrims and who also taught them how to fish the local rivers and to grow and harvest the corn and other crops that they were celebrating. It was quite a feast and included turkey, deer, lobster, fish, fowl, corn, squash, and cranberries. This type of celebration as well as its Autumnal timing was similar to the harvest festivals that many parts of Europe had been celebrating for centuries.



Going back to the line about the first Thanksgiving not being completely accurate, I say that because most historians agree that it wasn't truly the first one in the new continent. In 1619, English settlers in Berkley Hundred, near Jamestown in the Virginia colony, had a “day of thanksgiving” which was actually more or less a religious ceremony but did not include a feast. However, that still might not truly be the first one either as it has been documented that the Spanish had a thanksgiving celebration starting in the mid 1500's in modern day Florida. Also, in modern day Canada, settlers there started celebrating a “thanksgiving” in the late 16th century. So while the basic story behind the Pilgrims is true, it would be inaccurate to label it as the very first Thanksgiving in what is now America. As an aside, Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving but does so in September.


Another inaccuracy with this holiday is the popular misconception that it disappeared for over two centuries and was brought back to life by Lincoln during the Civil War. While Lincoln did issue a proclamation to make the final Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, several earlier presidents had done the exact same thing including George Washington and John Adams. Also, many states, particularly in the North, had officially been celebrating the holiday decades before Lincoln.


Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until FDR and Congress did so in 1941. They specifically made the fourth Thursday in November (rather than the last) as the date for the holiday. A couple of years earlier, FDR had tried to move the holiday up a week to help spur Christmas sales during the lean times of the Depression. His idea flopped and many people, especially in the South, still celebrated on the last Thursday and jokingly referred to the earlier celebration as “Franksgiving” while some parts of the country simply celebrated both holidays. So after two years and “four” Thanksgivings, FDR and Congress made the change and it has been that way ever since.



There have been some recent trends with Thanksgiving particularly relating to the preparation of the turkey. The big thing lately has been deep frying the bird in peanut oil. Unfortunately, this has also led to Thanksgiving day becoming the number one day of the year for home cooking fires in our country. The experts stress three things. Make sure you're outside. Make sure the turkey is completely thawed out. And make sure you slowly submerse it—don't just drop it in there.


And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other thing...just in case there is anyone out there who hasn't heard about it yet. In Louisiana, they eat what they call a “turducken”, in which a chicken is stuffed into a duck which is then stuffed into a turkey and then cooked. That's just crazy! Although, I must admit, I really want to try it sometime. There is also a variation called a “gooducken” in which a goose is substituted for the turkey. Strange but true...


Well folks...that's all I got for this one. Hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and maybe some of us will be dining on turducken this year!


Marshall McCart can be reached at marshmanslim@yahoo.com. Previous columns and additional writings can be found at his blog: www.thepiedmontchronicles.blogspot.com