Things you may not have known about Thanksgiving

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I was reading a few anecdotes on the Internet machine about Thanksgiving. Like every year, here goes a column about the history of Thanksgiving that you may have missed.

I don’t go back to previous Thanksgiving columns to make sure I don’t repeat something. I’m sure you won’t, either.

And, I admit that I did not spend hours researching the subject. There also are no footnotes with which to bore you, although if this were an academic paper, it probably would get an F.

Now that all this is out of the way, here it goes.

• The date of what is typically recognized as the first Thanksgiving is not precisely known, though it occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, 1621. The Plymouth Pilgrims dined with the Wampanoag Indians for the first Thanksgiving.

• It’s not likely the settlers even invited the tribes who helped them to survive to eat with them. If anything, they offered them food as payment and then crossed themselves in fear for their lives, having made direct contact with their rescuers.

(So, there were Indians there, or just Pilgrims? Most accounts say there were Indians there also. They were probably celebrating surviving the smallpox.)

• The First Thanksgiving lasted for three days. According to Edward Winslow, a participant in the first Thanksgiving, the feast consisted of corn, barley, fowl, including wild turkeys and waterfowl, and venison.

• There is no evidence that turkey was eaten at the first Thanksgiving, a three-day meal shared between the pilgrims and the Wamponoag tribe in 1621. It is more likely that they ate venison and a lot of seafood.

(So, they may, or may not, have eaten turkey. Winslow thought he was eating turkey, and he was there. Chances are they ate some wild turkey. We drink that stuff today.)

• Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving, but we don’t care. This is America. If you want to know, they hold it on the second Monday in October. You missed it? So did I.

• In 1621, everybody partook of alcoholic beverages – even the kids. (Sorry kids, this part of the celebration has changed.)

• The famous pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony, Mass. in 1621 is traditionally regarded as the first American Thanksgiving. However, there are actually 12 claims to where the “first” Thanksgiving took place: two in Texas, two in Florida, one in Maine, two in Virginia, and five in Massachusetts.

(I knew Texas would pop up here, somewhere.)

• In Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle, there is a marker that says, “Feast of the First Thanksgiving – 1541.”

• The first known Thanksgiving feast or festival in North America was celebrated by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and the people he called “Tejas,” members of the Hasinai group of Caddo-speaking Native Americans.

(There you go, dear reader. We are celebrating the wrong Thanksgiving. Forget 1621. Texas has that beat by 80 years. What’s with these Pilgrims, anyway? They’re way behind the times.)

• The famous “Pilgrim and Indian” story featured in modern Thanksgiving narratives was not initially part of early Thanksgiving stories, largely due to tensions between Indians and colonists.

(That’s no joke. Indians and colonists were just not on the same page. Indians had the land, and the colonists wanted it.)

• The Puritans were not a riotously fun lot. It goes to follow that their “Thanksgiving” involved less stuffing and more countless hours of prayer.

(So, there was no partying going on? Not even a football game?)

• Thanksgiving football games began with Yale versus Princeton in 1876.

• Long before the Pilgrims, native Hawaiians celebrated the longest Thanksgiving in the world, Makahiki, which lasted four months, approximately from November through February. During this time, both work and war were forbidden.

(I always liked Hawaii.)

• Benjamin Franklin wanted the national bird to be a turkey. (With all respect to Franklin, the Eagle was the right choice.)

• The fork was not used at the 1621 Thanksgiving. They all used knives, spoons and fingers. The fork was not brought by the pilgrims. Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts introduced it 10 years later, but it did not really catch on until the 18th century.

(Winthrop called the fork the greatest invention since sliced bread.)

• Part of the reason that Swanson started creating TV dinners in 1953 was because it needed to find something to do with the massive amount of leftover frozen Thanksgiving turkeys. (Thanks, Swanson, I think.)

• An estimated 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving. The birds weigh, on average, 16 pounds.
(How did they even get the name turkey? You can thank Columbus for that.)

• Columbus thought that the land he discovered was connected to India, where peacocks are found in considerable number. And he believed turkeys were a type of peacock (they’re actually a type of pheasant). So he named them “tuka,” which is “peacock” in the Tamil language of India.

(He got the country wrong, then thought the turkey was a peacock. How did this guy make it back home?)

• The author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale, was key in getting Thanksgiving officially recognized as a national holiday.

(Then she wrote the book, “Mary Had a Little Turkey.”)

• The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was declared in 1775 by the Continental Congress. This was to celebrate the win at Saratoga during the American Revolution. However, this was not an annual event.

(So, we gave thanks to beating the British. The Indian stuff and the Pilgrims came into the celebration picture later.)

• In 1920, Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia held a parade with about 50 people and Santa Claus bringing up the rear. The parade is now the nation’s oldest Thanksgiving Day parade. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade came along four years later.

(What about after Thanksgiving? When did all the sales start?)

• When President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November to prolong the holiday shopping season, many Republicans rebelled. The holiday was temporarily celebrated on different dates: Nov. 30 became the “Republican Thanksgiving” and Nov. 23 was “Franksgiving,” or “Democrat Thanksgiving.”

(I knew we’d get to the politics before the column ended.)

• Not all states were eager to adopt Thanksgiving because some thought the national government was exercising too much power in declaring a national holiday. Additionally, southern states were hesitant to observe what was largely a New England practice.

(The way they saw it, it was a Yankee holiday.)

There are many more little facts with which I could annoy you, but I’ve got to run along and watch the parade.

Have a great Thanksgiving holiday weekend, dear reader, and don’t forget to give thanks for all the good things that have happened to you.