Due to America’s great cultural and religious diversity, more Americans now celebrate Thanksgiving than they do Christmas. Most of us spent yesterday with family, cooking and eating a feast, usually involving a turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberries, watching Macy’s parade and then falling asleep in front of the television while watching football, after we ate the last of the pumpkin pie. But how did these traditions come about? Did the pilgrims eat turkey and cranberries with the Indians on the first Thanksgiving? It’s worthy of exploring.
Over the years, Thanksgiving has swerved away from its original intent, which was to combine a harvest festival with a religious celebration of prayer and feasting. These days, it’s come to represent the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. The Continental Congress approved the first national observance of the holiday in 1777. Even with the proclamation, Thanksgiving as a national holiday didn’t catch on until Sarah Josepha Hale, renowned for her poem, Mary Had A Little Lamb, and editor of the wildly successful Godey’s Lady’s Book mounted a campaign to have it set aside as a national observance. Abraham Lincoln was the first to designate a specific day–the last Thursday in November–as a day to unite the country during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt opted to move up the date by a week, in order to give the retailers more time to sell their products. It took years for the date to revert back to the last Thursday in November.
The first celebration of Thanksgiving on American soil happened in 1621, on the Plymouth Plantation, when the Pilgrims who were fleeing religious prosecution in England had landed. The previous year, the crops had failed, and half of the pilgrims had starved to death. The reason for the massive failure was due in part to the fact the Pilgrims were from the upper classes of England and had no training in farming, and the land was different from England’s and they had no idea how to adapt. Out of desperation, they called on the local Wampanoag tribe to show them how to grow corn, beans and squash and how to fish and harvest other types of seafood.
To show appreciation, the Pilgrims and the tribe who saved them celebrated for three days, at least according to what most of us were taught in school. The main courses were deer, codfish, lobster and goose. No turkey. The Mashpee version is a bit different. According to their legend, the tribe was not originally a guest. The Pilgrims were celebrating a good harvest in the usual English manner of shooting off guns and cannons. The Indians had no idea if the English were on the attack, so they gathered up nearly 100 tribesmen and set out for the settlement to find out. When they arrived and were told the reason for the gunfire, they decided to remain and make certain that’s all it was. There was no big feast with both factions breaking bread together. They both viewed the other with suspicion.
So how is it turkey has assumed a place of honor at the Thanksgiving table? Accounts vary, but for the most part, the classic meal with all its trimmings is derived from the harvest cycles in New England, where the first celebration happened, along with the abundance of wild turkeys in that part of the country. Today, many Americans add in their own regional or cultural dishes, making variations of the menu a part of the holiday tradition as well. Sweet potato casseroles, cornbread dressing, key lime pie and ambrosia have become expected staples of the meal in some parts of the country.
Football as part of the holiday tradition is a different story. In 1934, G. A. Richards, the first owner of the Detroit Lions football franchise, was searching for ways to draw attention to his new team. He approached NBC with the idea of televising a game on Thanksgiving, when most Americans would have the day off from work, and they agreed. The Lions played the Chicago Bears and a tradition was born.
Macy’s Parade was born in the 1920s, when many of the immigrant workers at Macy’s hatched plans to celebrate the American tradition by incorporating the same sort of festival they were used to in their native lands. The first parades consisted of marching bands and floats. The cheerleaders and giant balloons came later, and all are now a part of this parade, which extends for six miles through New York City.
Regardless of its origins, or what food made its way to your table, it is the hope of the ladies from History Imagined that you had a pleasant and filling day with family and friends.