Nel's New Day

November 28, 2013

Traditions for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day can be a time of traditions. Each year, for example, friends visit and celebrate their partnership anniversary with us. We talked about anniversaries last evening. I commented that even though my partner and I married at the beginning of October this year that I’ll always think of my anniversary as the day that my partner and I selected 44 years ago to celebrate.

Traditions also change. For many Thanksgiving days, the four of us listened to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” starting exactly at noon on our public radio station. If you haven’t heard it, I heartily recommend the experience. This year, however, the programming changed, eliminating the airing of the performance. We briefly mourned. Eating, parades, football, and shopping are other Thanksgiving traditions that have changed over the years.

Some of the history:

Much as people like to think that Pilgrims held the “first” Thanksgiving, its tradition began before that event. The Thanksgiving feast is a harvest festival; thus other cultures celebrated this season, sometimes with thankful offerings to gods. Some claim that the first feast in North America between foreigners—like the Pilgrims—and natives was in 1541 when Francisco de Coronado and his expedition broke bread with the natives at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle. Other historians prefer the one in Florida with French Huguenots celebrating on June 30th of 1564 or the one celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565. There were also ones at the Jamestown colony in 1609 and Roanoke in 1586, and Ponce de Leon had one near St. Petersburg (FL) in 1513.

The Plymouth feast took three days. Both Pilgrims and American Indians contributed, but turkey wasn’t served. Colonist Edward Winslow reported that “wild fowl” was on the menu, which could have been duck or geese. The celebrants did eat venison, shellfish, and lobster as well as nuts, wheat flour, pumpkins, squashes, carrots, and peas. Images of clothing provided to school children are also wrong. Because buckles were too expensive, Pilgrims’ clothing used buttons and laces for fastening. The misunderstanding came from nineteenth-century illustrators who used clothing popular among fashionable Englishmen in the 1600s.

Although conservatives like to think that the founding fathers made Thanksgiving a national holiday—and George Washington wanted it to be so—Thomas Jefferson thought the idea was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. The official proclamation of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November didn’t occur until 1863, after 40 years of Sarah Josepha Hale’s letter-campaign to five presidents. Southern states, which had already seceded from the Union, opposed the holiday because they thought it was a “New England” holiday. Even 150 years ago, conservatives fought the government on the simplest concepts. No nationwide Thanksgiving date existed until the 1870s.

In 1939, President F.D. Roosevelt proclaimed that the day for Thanksgiving would be changed to the fourth Thursday in November to help the economy by lengthening the Christmas shopping season. Republicans opposed the change and called it Democrat Thanksgiving or “Franksgiving.” They celebrated their own Republican Thanksgiving the next Thursday. Two years later, Congress confirmed Roosevelt’s day by passing a law which Roosevelt signed.

“Black Friday” started over 50 years ago in Philadelphia. The term was named after the mass of shoppers that came to the malls causing heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the name stuck. After retailers failed to change the nickname, they defined the term as the day of the year that puts retailers into the “black.” That might be true for smaller retailers, but large retail chains like Wal-Mart start with a positive net income on January 1. Black Friday shopping is known for attracting aggressive crowds and annual reports of assaults, shootings, and throngs of people trampling on other shoppers in an attempt to get the best deal before supplies run out.

The day after Thanksgiving is also the biggest day for bar and liquor sales. Some people guess that it’s caused by the long holiday weekend and being around family.

Conservatives might also be distressed by the origination of the word “turkey,” corrupted from the Hebrew tukki. Columbus’ Jewish interpreter, Luis de Torres, called the wild birds tukki because they looked like peacocks to him. Other linguists think that turkey originated from tuka, the Tamil word for peacock.

Every year, since Abraham Lincoln, the president has pardoned two turkeys for Thanksgiving. (This year’s winner is Popcorn, with Caramel the runner-up. Both turkeys will live.) The tradition began accidentally when Lincoln informally pardoned his son Tad’s pet, Jack the Turkey. Pardoning occurred sporadically until 1947 when Harry Truman made it official. For a while, the pardoned turkeys retired to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch (CA); the location moved in 2010 to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Last year, about 254 million turkeys were raised the U.S. A myth surrounding them is that the tryptophan in the meat makes people sleepy. It’s not really enough to make any different. Scientists guess that it’s alcohol, or excessive food, or just relaxing with good company.

Yale and Princeton started the football tradition when they played their first game in 1876. The NFL joined in 1934 when the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears. Detroit has played every year since then except during World War II. The Dallas Cowboys added another game in 1966. This year, the Lions play the Green Bay Packers while the Cowboys play the Raiders. A third game is the Jacksonville Jaguars facing the Baltimore Ravens. High school games are called “Turkey Bowls.”

Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924, called “The Christmas Parade,” used live animals from the Central Park Zoo and was billed as “The Christmas Parade.” Three years later, Goodyear added a giant balloon of Felix the Cat. For the next six years, balloons just floated off into the sky at the end of the parade, and Macy’s gave everyone who found a deflated balloon $100. Snoopy, who joined the parade in 1968 and showed up another six times, has the record for the most appearances. In 1946, the parade route moved to its current starting point at 77th and Central Park West, and in 1947, it was first nationally televised. Macy’s thought about cancelling the parade 50 years after the Kennedy assassination, but then decided to continue the tradition. About 3.5 million watch the parade on New York streets with another 50 million seeing it on television.

Native Hawaiians celebrate Makahiki, their own “Thanksgiving” festival, dedicated to the agriculture and fertility god, Lono. Starting in late October, the Hawaiians suspended all war for four months as they feasted, played games, danced, and generally made merry with Lono was in charge. They carried a tiki of Lono, trimmed with ferns and feathers, around each island to mark the start of the makahiki season. When Ku took over again at the end of the lunar calendar of January, they set adrift a canoe with offerings to Lono.

Since 1975, following the 17-month occupation of Alcatraz Island by the American Indian Movement in 1969, the International Indian Treaty Council has an annual “Unthanksgiving Day.” A sunrise ceremony commemorates the struggles of the indigenous native people.

If you enjoy Thanksgiving, thank your progressive presidents and lawmakers who overcame conservative opposition to bring this holiday to the people in the United States. And if you like shopping, be careful that some desperate person doesn’t accidentally kill you tomorrow.

Thanks to T. Steelman for some of the above information and a list of sources:

  • A Taste of Thanksgiving: Curious Facts About America’s Holiday by Christopher Forest
  • Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions by Pauline Campanelli and Dan Campanelli
  • Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Warren Beckwith


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