The story of Thanksgiving

Our friends across the pond are travelling to their family homes and rolling up their sleeves to prepare a hearty meal of turkey and pumpkin pie. Yes, it’s Thanksgiving time.

The political atmosphere may be fractious and America’s military presence abroad may rankle many of its citizens, but Thanksgiving offers Americans a holiday to be celebrated as they see fit, not dictated by religion or creed. Nor is it a present-exchanging extravaganza or crass marketing vehicle. In a historical article written in the New York Times in 1874, Thanksgiving was described as “above all others the day of hospitality, of reunion of friends and families, of good cheer, of kind thoughts for neighbours, of hilarity for the well-to-do, and of rejoicing by the poor over the one turkey of the year.” Added to the mix is football, when a drunken in-law and an overcooked turkey becomes too much.

To this day, historians quibble over the origins of Thanksgiving. According to the popular retelling, the first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated by the pilgrims of the Plymouth colony and about 90 Wampanoag Indians in 1621 as an expression of a bountiful harvest. The governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings”, which led into a three-day outdoor feast. Although the narrative is one of triumph, it does have tragic undertones to it. The pilgrims had overcome extreme adversity – a devastating winter in which nearly half had died in an unfamiliar land. Without the help of the Indians, all would have perished. The first Thanksgiving celebration was also an occasion to ask for God’s mercy. In early America, Thanksgiving days were announced ad hoc, normally when danger was imminent or had recently relented – some of the recorded occasions were a severe drought and a Boston earthquake wherein “every inhabitant in the Town thought their houses would fall upon their heads”.

In 1789, the first American President, George Washington, proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November, in honour of the new United States Constitution. But Thomas Jefferson, the third president, later discontinued it, calling it “a kingly practice.” In 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor was instrumental in convincing President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday. For the date she chose the last Thursday in November because of Washington’s proclamation. In 1941, the date was officially changed to the fourth Thursday in November.

Here are some of our favourite Thanksgiving facts…

1. Each year at least two lucky turkeys avoid the dinner table, thanks to a presidential pardon—a longstanding Washington tradition of an uncertain origin. Started in the mid-20th century, the turkeys are sent to a farm to retire in peace instead.

2. The first Thanksgiving meal featured deer, not turkey. There were probably no cakes or pies that mark the feast today as we know that sugar was scarce for the pilgrims at that time.

3. While Macy’s is synonymous with the official Thanksgiving parade the nation watches each year, it was actually their rival, Gimbels Department Store that began the Thanksgiving parade tradition in 1920 in Philadelphia. Macy’s parade was started in 1924 in New York City, and has become the Thanksgiving symbol of celebration ever since.

4. When the pilgrims landed in Plymouth, they were befriended by the Wampanoag Tribe who brought them food and taught them to hunt wild game and plant corn. While there is a sad history of the British driving them away and killing them over time, the Wampanoag Tribe still exists today in Plymouth County, consisting of about 2000 people.

5. While Thanksgiving football games used to be a tradition among high school and college teams, we now associate Thanksgiving Day with the NFL. This all started with the Detroit Lions in 1934. It was a nationally publicised event to gain attention for the team, and is now a long-standing sports tradition

Happy Thanksgiving American friends!

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