Thanksgiving is a holiday with a colorful history

By John Toth / Bulletin Publisher

As you stuff yourself this Thanksgiving, remember the conditions under which the Pilgrims celebrated that famous first Thanksgiving in 1621 in what is now Massachusetts. O.K., from what I could tell, they had a good time. But they lacked the key ingredient of the modern-day Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is the menu from the very first Thanksgiving feast, which, by the way, lasted three days: Lobster, rabbit, chicken, fish, squashes, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey, radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and goat cheese.

Do you see turkey on there? The turkey actually escaped this feast, which was not really a Thanksgiving feast that was supposed to be repeated annually. It was a one-time harvest celebration. The turkey’s name – “turkey” – was not even known yet.

President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863. He was probably swayed in part by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale — the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — who had suggested Thanksgiving become a holiday.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established the current date for observance, the fourth Thursday of November. This was a somewhat messy process, though.

In 1939, he wanted the country to celebrate the holiday on the second to last Thursday each year to extend the Christmas shopping season. But half the states didn’t go along, preferring the last Thursday of the month instead.

Texas had to be different from the rest. The state decided to celebrate both dates, so there were two Thanksgivings in the state for a while.

You can still celebrate Thanksgiving twice a year. Go to Canada on the second Monday in October, when they celebrate it there. Then come back here in November. But, that’s just for the most extreme Thanksgiving celebrants. Most of us are satisfied with just one four-day Thanksgiving weekend.

I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade for a few minutes one year on TV. To get really into the atmosphere of a parade, you have to go to the parade. I like parades where there is a lot of music, but not the ones where they lip-sink.

After a nice, brisk parade, we settle down and eat turkey – 45 million of them.

Why are we even calling it “turkey?”

As it turns out, the North American turkey name is a victim of circumstance. When it was being first imported to Europe in the 1600s, the “guinea fowl” also was being imported along the same route from Madagascar, via the Ottoman Empire.

Those importers were called “turkey merchants,” and the guinea fowl were also referred to as the “turkey fowl.” When the North American imports started, everybody just referred to the bird as the turkey fowl, which was shortened over the centuries to turkey.

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, not the eagle, to be the national bird of the United States. Hindsight being 20-20, that would not have been a good idea.

Have a great Thanksgiving, dear reader. I hope it is the perfect beginning of your joyous and unforgettable holiday season.