Thanksgiving

Halloween may have been my favorite holiday as a child, but as an adult, Thanksgiving holds that title.  I love the colors of fall and the idea of gathering with friends and family for a good meal and to give thanks.  Thanksgiving lacks the stress and hysteria of Christmas, and is so much more relaxed.  My family is a “card family”, so thanksgiving cards have been a favorite too. 

The Pumpkin Patch, Winslow Homer 1878

 For the past 24 years my Thanksgivings have been spent in Florida.  Being a non-turkey eater, my Thanksgiving dinner tradition has been Stone Crab claws.  Stone Crab claws are scarce in Michigan, but I think I may have found a good alternative in Jonah Crab claws from the north Atlantic.  We will see.

Jan Bergerlind

 Every family has their own Thanksgiving traditions.  But what is the origin of Thanksgiving, and how did it become a national holiday?  I go back to Panati’s for the answer.  Here is what Panati’s has to say:

The 102 Pilgrims who sailed on board the Mayflower, fleeing religious oppression , were well acquainted with annual thanksgiving day celebrations. The custom was ancient and universal.  The Greeks had honored Demeter, goddess of agriculture;  the Romans had paid tribute to Ceres, the goddess of corn;  while the Hebrews had offered thanks for abundant harvests with the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles.  These customs had never really died out in the Western world.

The Pilgrims, after a four-month journey that began in Holland, landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620.  Confronted with severe weather, and a plague that killed hundreds of local Indians, they had by the fall of 1621 lost forty-six of their own members, mainly to scurvy and pneumonia.  The survivors, though, had something to be thankful for.  A new and bountiful crop had been harvested.  Food was abundant.  And they were alive, in large part thanks to the assistance of one person:  an English-speaking Pawtuxet Indian named Squanto, who was to stay by their side until his death two years later.

As a boy, Squanto had been captured by explorers to America and sold into slavery in Spain.  He escaped to England, spent several years working for a wealthy merchant, and, considerably Anglicized, returned to his native Indian village just six months before the Pilgrims landed.  He had helped them build houses and to plant and cultivate crops of corn and barley.  In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims elected a new governor, William Bradford, and proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in their small town, which had seven private homes and four communal buildings.

According to Governor Bradford’s own history, Of Plimoth Plantation, the celebration lasted three days.  He sent “four men fowling” and the ducks and geese they brought back were added to lobsters, clams, bass, corn, green vegetables, and dried fruit.

The Pilgrims invited the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, and ninety of his braves, and the work of preparing the feast  –  for ninety-one Indians and fifty-six settlers  –  fell to only four pilgrim women and two teenage girls.  (Thirteen women had died the previous winter.)

The first Thanksgiving Day had all the elements of modern celebrations, only on a smaller scale.  A parade of soldiers, blasting muskets and trumpeting bugles, was staged by Captain Myles Standish, later to be immortalized in Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”  The ninety Indian braves competed against the settlers in foot races and jumping matches.  And after the Indians displayed their accuracy with bow and arrow, the white men, with guns, exhibited their own breed of marksmanship.

Detail from Jennie Augusta Brownscomb's "The First Thanksgiving" 1914

So the celebration from 1621 sounds familiar, especially that part about the four women doing all the cooking.  My Stone Crab claws aren’t that far off from the original lobster, and I too will have fresh corn.  I will also watch a parade this upcoming Thanksgiving Day, but it will be held by Macy’s, not soldiers.

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving dinner included the following:

Despite popular legend, two major staples of a modern Thanksgiving meal – turkey and pumpkin pie – may not have been enjoyed at the Pilgrims’ banquet.  Though Governor Bradford sent “four men fowling”, and they returned with “a great store of wild Turkies” there is not proof that the catch included the bird we call a turkey.  Wild turkeys did roam the woods of the Northeast, but in the language of the seventeenth-century Pilgrims, “turkey” simply meant any guinea fowl, that is, any bird with featherless head, rounded body, and dark feathers speckled white.

It is certain, however, that the menu included venison, since another Pilgrim recorded that Chief Massasoit sent braves into the woods, who “killed five Deere which they brought to our Governour.”  Watercress and leeks were on the table, along with bitter wild plums and dried berries, but there was no apple cider, and no milk, butter, or cheese, since cows had not been aboard the Mayflower.

And there was no pumpkin pie.  Or bread as we’d recognize it.  Stores of flour from the ship had long since been exhausted and years would pass before significant quantities fo wheat were successfully cultivated in New England.  Without flour for a pie crust, there could be no pie.  But the Pilgrims did enjoy pumpkin at the meal – boiled.

The cooks concocted an ersatz bread.  Boiling corn, which was plentiful, they kneaded it into round cakes and fried it in venison fat.  There were fifteen young boys in the company, and during the three-day celebration they gathered wild cranberries, which the women boiled and mashed into a sauce for the meal’s meats.

The following year brought a poor harvest, and boatloads of new immigrants to house and feed;  the Pilgrims staged no Thanksgiving feast.  In fact, after that first plentiful and protracted meal, the Pilgrims never regularly celebrated a Thanksgiving Day.

But we do regularly celebrate this day, annually in fact.  It was in 1789 that President George Washington first proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, but the executive order was not carried out.

The establishment of the day we now celeberate nationwide was largely the result of the dilligent efforts of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale.  Mrs. Hale started her one-woman crusade for a Thanksgiving celebration in 1827, while she was editor of the extremely popular Boston Ladies’ Magazine.  Her hortatory editorials argued for the observance of a national Thanksgiving holiday, and she encouraged the public to write to their local politicians.

When Ladies’ Magazine consolidated with the equally successful Godey’s Lady’s Book of Phildelphia, Mrs. Hale became the editor of the largest periodical of its kind in the country, with a readership of 150,000.  Her new editorials were vigorous and patriotic, and their criticism of dissenters was caustic.

In addition to her magazine outlet, over a period of almost four decades she wrote hundreds of letters to governors, ministers, newspaper editors, and each incumbent President.  She always made the same request:  that the last Thursday in November be set aside to “offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.”

By 1863, the Civil War had bitterly divided the nation into two armed camps.  Mrs Hale’s final editorial, highly emotional and unflinchingly patriotic, appeared in September of that year, just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, in which hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives.  In spite of the staggering toll of dead, Gettysburg was an important victory for the North, and a general feeling of elation, together with the clamor produced by Mrs. Hale’s widely circulated editoral, prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation on October 3, 1863, setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day.

Life cover by Norman Rockwell

I propose that when you sit around the table this year, raise a glass to Mrs. Hale in thanks for her efforts in getting a national Thanksgiving Day on the calendar.

Thanksgiving last year at my house in Florida with my mother and friend Augie.

Thanksgiving 2008 at my sister Katy's house in Oregon, with friends and family.

Thanksgiving 2006 at my sister Becky's house in Seattle.

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