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Monday, November 24, 2014

Myths of Thanksgiving

BACK IN THE UNENLIGHTENED ’60s, we elementary-school wretches celebrated the run-up to Thanksgiving by collecting dying leaves, cutting endless amounts of corn ears and turkey tails out of colorful cardboard, and most annoying of all, holding some manner of classroom pageant complete with hastily made approximations of the received image of Pilgrim haberdashery.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth"
Painting by Jennie Brownscombe, 1914
You would have thought, to see this spectacle, that the 17th-century Pilgrims threw an annual party to which they invited their Indian neighbors, reflecting the general goodwill that prevailed and endured among the races. At the expense of many a turkey.

Like leftover turnips, such misbegotten ideas accumulate until someone mercifully gets rid of them, so let’s clean up a few of them. I’m indebted, not surprisingly, to the Internet, where Plimoth Plantation ( and contributed info. Not to mention The Thanksgiving Book by Jerome Agel and Jason Shulman (Smithmark Publishers, 1987).

Thanksgiving originated neither with the Pilgrims nor in the New World. This kind of feast went on even earlier in England, and is traceable back in time to the Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles as well as to Greek and Roman harvest festivals.

Furthermore, it wasn’t even really a Thanksgiving. For the Pilgrims, that term described a ritual even more solemn than their usual behavior. When you’re drinking and dancing and pigging out, you’re decidedly un-Puritanical.

And that image of black-and-white-garbed, big-buckled Puritans? For us oldsters, it may have been the result of having only black-and-white TV in those days, but the fact is that they only dressed that way for church or other formal functions. And they didn’t have those outsized buckles, which arrived on the fashion scene very late in the 1600s and wouldn’t have appealed to the Pilgrims, whose idea of sartorial excess consisted of muted earth-tone colors.

What we think of as the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 when Gov. William Bradford ordered a three-day feast to celebrate the settlers’ first successful year on these shores. It was a big blowout with the Wampanoag Indians as guests, and the event was facilitated by two former slaves—Squanto and Samoset—who spoke English.

And it’s true (as much as any nearly 500-year-old tale is true) that Squanto helped the starving settlers cultivate the foreign soil, resulting in a good harvest in 1621. But that wasn’t all. In October, Bradford sent out a group of hunters who, according to Edward Winslow, “in one day killed as much fowl as . . . served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming among us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

But it didn’t become an annual event. The 1622 harvest was lousy, so no party was thrown. The following year, the harvest was saved by a sudden rainfall, and another feast was spread. A half-century of very occasional feasts followed, with the Wampanoag made welcome, before the settlers decided to spend the next several years wiping them out.

All of the states celebrated a Thanksgiving on Dec. 18, 1777, inspired by the defeat of Burgoyne in Saratoga, but that was another one-off.

Was turkey on the menu back then? “Wild Turkies” are mentioned in a contemporaneous account, and it’s presumed that the party consumed other birds like geese, ducks and partridges, not to mention cranes, swans and eagles. But not pheasant, which often is incorrectly assumed to have been available for that feast. Pheasants originated in Asia, spread into Europe, but weren’t introduced into the U.S. until 1881, when this country’s consul to China shipped a couple dozen back to his home in Oregon.

There wasn’t available sugar, so no pumpkin pie back then, although a honey-sweetened pudding was in the Pilgrim repertory. Potatoes weren’t grown there then, and what corn was available had at that point been dried to grind into meal. But we’re talking Plymouth, so there might well have been cod, clams and lobster on the table—an idea still worth exploring.

Was that first festival on the fourth Thursday of November? The date remains unknown. But the custom of a regularly scheduled feast began to grow in the early 19th century, when the state of New York decided to have an annual Thanksgiving Day, eventually prompting other states to follow suit.

Holding it on a Thursday business may have been chosen by President Lincoln in 1863, when he declared a day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, probably to honor the Nov. 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod.

Lincoln had been pestered for some time by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the widely read Godey’s Lady’s Book, who wanted a national Day of Thanks and had been publishing a Thanksgiving issue each November beginning in 1846.

President Franklin Roosevelt officially set the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, and it was formalized by congressional approval two years later.

There’s one more myth to explore. The day after Thanksgiving actually is not the busiest shopping day of the year. This doesn’t mean you want to saunter down to Crossgates then. It’ll be crazy, but it’ll be even crazier toward the end of December. It’s known as “Black Friday” because it’s supposed to be the day upon which retailers’ accounts move from the red ink to the black.

Lots of people browse, but don’t spend as much money as they will later, making Black Friday only the fifth-busiest shopping day of the year. The other four typically fall on the two weekends before Christmas, hitting the top on the last Saturday before Santa arrives.

So dine well this week, and shop lightly.

Metroland Magazine, 20 November 2014

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