The Delightful History Of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: The Holiday Republicans Didn't Want To Celebrate

An array of facts and trivia about American Thanksgiving. You may be surprised at what you learn: did you know that the very first feast was in Florida?


Ah, Thanksgiving… turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie. Football, parades and feasting with family. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. Well, sort of. Many myths have sprung up around the holiday, and many traditions have, too. It’s time to take a look at the history and traditions of American Thanksgiving — our neighbors to the north had theirs last month.

The first Thanksgiving: not exactly what you think

Thanksgiving is, for all intents and purposes, a belated harvest festival. Before Americans adopted the tradition, American Indians, Europeans, and many other cultures celebrated the harvest season with feasts and offerings to their gods as thanks for their survival. Some still do.

It’s generally believed that the feast at Plymouth Colony was the first Thanksgiving here in North America. But the first feast between arriving foreigners and Natives took place in 1541, when Francisco de Coronado and his expedition broke bread with the natives at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle. Some historians say that a similar feast held in Florida was the first, with French Huguenots celebrating on June 30th of 1564. Others point to Jamestown colony in 1609 and Roanoke in 1586. Then again, maybe it was Ponce de Leon in 1513 near what is now St. Petersburg, Florida. Any way you carve it, the Pilgrims weren’t the first.

The Plymouth feast lasted three days, with Pilgrims and American Indians both contributing to the meal. But turkey wasn’t on the menu. According to the narrative of colonist Edward Winslow “wild fowl” was served. It was never specified which fowl he meant. It could also have been duck or geese. What we do know  is that venison, shellfish and lobster were served, along with nuts, wheat flour, pumpkins, squashes, carrots, and peas.

The Pilgrims didn’t wear the clothes in which they are pictured nowadays. Buckles were too expensive: buttons and laces would have held their clothing together. In the 19th century, illustrators searched for a costume to use in drawings for the holiday. They settled on a style of clothing that was popular among the fashionable in 17th century England.

How Thanksgiving became a national holiday

George Washington wanted a national Thanksgiving celebration when he was President and suggested such. He had the support of a number of other founding fathers… except for Thomas Jefferson, who thought a national day of Thanksgiving was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Abraham Lincoln finally made it an official holiday by proclamation in 1863, designated it as the last Thursday of November. Many southern states weren’t supportive of Thanksgiving at first.  They were not happy about the federal government telling them to celebrate and felt that it was a “New England” holiday. They were still a bit miffed about the whole Civil War thing.

Despite Lincoln’s proclamation, the date of Thanksgiving was not fixed until 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill setting the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. He moved it up a week to help the economy by lengthening the Christmas shopping season.

Republicans were not down with this change, and retaliated by calling it Democrat Thanksgiving (or “Franksgiving”). They celebrated the following Thursday, calling that Republican Thanksgiving.  Many Republican governors defied the change of date and observed the holiday on the last Thursday of the month, anyway. Republicans have some experience of being childish pre-Obama, it seems.

Shopping frenzy

“Black Friday” began in the 1960s in Philadelphia. That city was the mall capital of America at that time, and Philadelphians coined the term to refer to the mass of shoppers that came out to shop the day after Thanksgiving. Later, retailers put their spin on the name, saying it described their hoped-for profit on that day. They took it from the term to be “in the black,” or making a profit. I think that some of them have abused the privilege.

So, we know that the day after Thanksgiving is a big shopping day for presents. But did you know that the day before Thanksgiving is the biggest day for bar and liquor sales? Experts think that this is because of the long holiday weekend and having — or being — guests. Then again, it could be that some folks are laying in a supply to help them handle the relatives.

Let’s talk turkey

The word “turkey” is originally Hebrew, a corruption of the word tukki. Columbus’ Jewish interpreter, Luis de Torres, dubbed the wild birds tukki because they looked somewhat like peacocks to him. Some linguists maintain that it originated from tuka, the Tamil word for peacock. Either way, it’s an exotic word for our original wild birds.

Abraham Lincoln started the custom of pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving. He informally pardoned his son Tad’s pet, Jack the Turkey, accidentally giving rise to the tradition. Other presidents did the pardoning thing but sporadically until 1947, when Harry Truman made it official. For a time, the pardoned birds went to live out their lives at  Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch in California. Since 2010, though, the turkeys have gone to live at Washington’s Mount Vernon.

An estimated 254 million turkeys were raised in the U.S. in 2012 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The good news is that turkey prices are down this year to help lure shoppers in, hoping that they will purchase all the trimmings to go along with it. The average Thanksgiving turkey dinner will cost an average of $49.04 this year, which is down 44 cents from last year.

Let’s bust the myth about tryptophan. The amount in most turkeys isn’t enough to make you  drowsy. Beef and cheese both have more. Rather, scientists say, it’s the booze, the feast or simply relaxing. But, heck, it’s a 4-day weekend so go ahead and have a catnap after dinner. That way you’ll be sharp for those evening board games. Or video games, depending on how you roll.

Thanksgiving pigskin mania

The tradition of football on turkey day was popularized by Yale and Princeton, who played their first game in 1876. In 1934, the NFL decided to get in on that action and The the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears. Detroit has played every Thanksgiving Day game save for during WWII. The Dallas Cowboys horned in on the audience in 1966 letting us have two Thanksgiving games. That first game between the Lions and Bears was first broadcast on NBC Radio in 1934. In 2013, the Lions will play the Green Bay Packers while the Cowboys take on the Raiders. We get an additional game now, with the Jaguars facing the Ravens. There are also many high school games, dubbed “Turkey Bowls.” Pick your favorite, grab a beer and cheer your team on. It will help keep you from falling asleep, at least.

What’s Thanksgiving without a parade?

Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924 was held with live animals from the Central Park Zoo and was billed as “The Christmas Parade.” This was the parade for the next three years. In 1927, Goodyear sponsored a giant balloon of Felix the Cat, starting that tradition. Until 1933, the balloons were just released to float off into the sky at the end of the parade and $100 was given by Macy’s to whomever found a deflated balloon. That stopped when a pilot trying to grab a loose balloon crashed his plane and died. Mickey Mouse made his debut seven years later. Kermit the Frog came along in 1985. Snoopy, who joined the parade in 1968, holds the record for most appearances in the parade with seven.  The parade route was moved to its present starting point at 77th and Central Park West in 1946. It was first televised nationally in 1947, drawing respectable viewership. Fifty years ago, the parade was almost cancelled due to the assassination of JFK. But it was felt that the nation needed it so the show went on. Each year, approximately 3.5 million people line the streets to watch the parade live while another 50 million or so watch it on TV. NBC began repeating the parade later in the day for those who were too exhausted by Thanksgiving preparations to get up early enough to view it live. Thank goodness!

Thanksgiving miscellany

Native Hawaiians celebrate their own “Thanksgiving” festival. Known as Makahiki, it is the time of year dedicated to the agriculture and fertility god, Lono. For four months, starting in late October, all war was suspended as the Hawaiians feasted, played games, danced and generally made merry while Lono was in charge. A tiki of Lono, trimmed with ferns and feathers, was carried around each island. As it passed through each area, that marked the start of the makahiki season. When Ku took over again at the end of January (these are approximate as the Hawaiians had a lunar calendar), a canoe with offerings to Lono was set adrift.

The Christmas song “Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. It was originally composed for a Thanksgiving program at his church in Savannah, Georgia. Originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh,” it became so popular that it was sung again on Christmas. It is now one of the best-known carols of all time.

If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you can try this instead: every year on Alcatraz Island the International Indian Treaty Council has an “Unthanksgiving Day.” A sunrise ceremony, it began in 1975, four years after the American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz in 1969, to commemorate the struggles of the indigenous native people. The group held the island for almost a year and a half, from November 2 until June 11, 1971. They chose Alcatraz as a “big enough symbol” for them to be taken seriously. The event is open to the public.

That’s just some of the lore surrounding this most wonderful holiday. Whether you have a turkey and all the trimmings or go vegan, have a small dinner or a huge feast, we here at Addicting Info send you and yours our best wishes for a safe and enjoyable holiday. Let the ritual of the yams commence!

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

The Everything Christmas Book: Stories, Songs, Food, Traditions, Revelry, and More by Brandon Toropov, Sharon Gapen Cook, Marian Gonsior and Susan Robinson