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Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Pilgrims, Turkeys, Parades, Football and Black Friday – Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Tradition dictates that Thanksgiving Day in America be celebrated every fourth Thursday of November. This is why this year Thanksgiving Day falls on November 24. This holiday is a perfect time to be with family and friends, to share a meal, watch some football and participate in all kinds of family traditions associated with the Thanksgiving. Each family has their own Thanksgiving customs and traditions. There is really no wrong way or right way to celebrate this holiday for as long as everyone remembers the original intent of Thanksgiving Day.

What do people give thanks for? Many non-Americans are not aware why there is such a holiday in the U.S. They probably have greeted their American friends, co-workers and acquaintances a “Happy Thanksgiving” without really knowing what the holiday is all about. If you yourself have no idea about Thanksgiving and the brouhaha surrounding it, here is what you should know.

Canadian Thanksgiving

It is best to get this out of the way. Thanksgiving is actually a holiday shared by two nations in North America – the United States and Canada. Yes, Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving. But, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving not on the 4th Thursday of November and not even within the month of November. Canadian’s celebrate it a month earlier, on the 2nd Monday of October. This has been so since 1957. Inspiration for Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday came from the American Thanksgiving holiday.

Pilgrims and Native Americans

There is much controversy with regards to when Thanksgiving was first celebrated. Many refer back to the Plymouth Thanksgiving as the first time this special day was celebrated. According to some accounts, in September 1620, roughly 102 passengers rode the Mayflower out of Plymouth, England. The ship reached Cape Cod (located in present-day Massachusetts) after 66 days. After a month, the ship finally reached Plymouth Harbor, which was located in Massachusetts Bay. The passengers, referred to as Pilgrims or sometimes, the Pilgrim Fathers because they were the first European settlers in New England, sought out to create their new life here. The pilgrims were made up of various religious separatists who wanted to find a new home where they can practice their faith freely, and of other persons seeking prosperity in what was then referred to as the New World.

Unfortunately, the colonists were in for a cruel winter. Many stayed on the Mayflower. Various illnesses beset the colonists. By spring of 1621, only half of the original crew and passengers remained. When March came, they moved ashore. An Abenaki Indian named Samoset came to visit them. Much to their surprise, Samoset spoke English. After a few days, they received another visit from the Samoset. This time he was not alone. A Native American named Squanto, from the Patuxet tribe, was with him.

Squanto shared with the Pilgrims his knowledge of planting corn, catching fish, and extracting maple sap from trees. He also told them which plants to avoid. With the help of Squanto, the Pilgrims were able to form an alliance with a local tribe, the Wampanoag.

The Plymouth Colony had their first corn harvest in November of 1621. Governor William Bradford, the English leader of the Plymouth settlers, organized a feast to celebrate the successful harvest and to give God thanks. He invited their Native American allies to the feast. For three days, the settlers and the Native Americans celebrated what some people refer to as the very first American Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, another Pilgrim leader and a chronicler of the group, mentioned in his journal how four men were ordered by Governor Bradford to find fowl for the celebration. According to Winslow, the Wampanoag tribe brought with them five deer. It was most likely, according to some historians, that spices and cooking methods for the celebration were of Native American origin. And since the settlers did not have an oven, plus the fact that sugar was in low supply on the Mayflower, pies, cakes and sweet desserts were not on the menu unlike in today’s Thanksgiving celebration.

But for some historians, the first ever religious Thanksgiving Day recorded in history was in 1623. On that day, the colonists thanked God for seeing them through the two-month drought. This practice of giving thanks became common in other settlements in New England after that.

Thanksgiving celebrated in different days

Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days by different states for many years. George Washington called on the nation in 1789 to celebrate a day of gratitude for the favorable conclusion to the war of independence and the ratification of the country’s Constitution. Other presidents also assigned days to give thanks while they were in office.

New York was the first state that adopted a yearly Thanksgiving holiday. This happened on 1817. Other states also adopted annual Thanksgiving celebrations. However, the celebrations were not in sync. In the southern states, Thanksgiving was not a familiar holiday.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

A prolific female author and editor named Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for the country to have just one specific day for Thanksgiving. Hale, who wrote one of the most beloved nursery rhymes of all time, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” spent years writing letters to politicians, including governors, senators and presidents. She also wrote many editorials on the subject of having just one specific day for Thanksgiving.

In 1863, her request was finally heard. It was the height of the American Civil War when then president, Abraham Lincoln, heeded Hale’s request. Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Franksgiving

The designated day was moved up a week in 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president then and the country was under the Great Depression. Roosevelt did so upon the request of the National Retail Dry Goods Association. It was expected that by doing so, retail sales would go up. Unfortunately, his plan, which was derisively called Franksgiving, was a very unpopular one and many were opposed. Some states continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. This led to a lot of confusion. Some families could not spend the holiday together because their respective states were celebrating Thanksgiving on two different dates. After two years, Roosevelt finally signed a bill that designated the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving traditions

On the dining table

It was believed that Pilgrims and Native Americans shared a meal consisting of venison, fowl, lobster, fish, clams, nuts, corn, pumpkin, squash, peas and carrots. Sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce were not part of the fare then. Today’s Thanksgiving dinner, however, is all about the turkey. In fact, another name for Thanksgiving is “Turkey Day.” Turkey is usually stuffed with either homemade bread stuffing or some store bought equivalent before the whole fowl is roasted. Nowadays, deep-fried turkey has been making its way on dinner tables. Turkeys are lowered into large cylindrical fryers filled with hot oil. It’s a novelty that is dangerous when done by inexperienced cooks.

Instead of Turkey, other types of fowl are served such as goose, duck or even chicken. Venison also makes it to the table in some homes today.

As far as side dishes are concerned, each family has their own must-sides. Some of the common side dishes on Thanksgiving tables are: cornbread, bread rolls, biscuits, deviled eggs, all sorts of vegetables and roots such as green beans, peas, carrots, corn, yams, squash, and potatoes (usually mashed). Then there’s an assortment of salads, cranberry sauce, gravy and extra stuffing.

For dessert, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, apple pie, and pecan pie are common. Apple cider is a common beverage. However, wine, beer, and even soda also make it to today’s Thanksgiving table. What people partake of during Thanksgiving really depends on what’s available, what’s bountiful, what’s traditional to the family or what’s affordable at that time. Turkey or no turkey, Thanksgiving dinner is all about being with loved ones and expressing one’s gratitude.

Gobble, gobble

And speaking of turkeys, each year since 1989, the sitting president of the U.S. pardons two turkeys, thereby keeping them off the White House Thanksgiving table. There are different stories about when this tradition really started. Some historians credit President Harry Truman while others say it was President Abraham Lincoln. Even President John F. Kennedy is being given credit for pardoning the fowls. But the most popular version gives credit to President George H. W. Bush as the first president who officially showed mercy on the Thanksgiving bird.

During the yearly National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation held at the White House Rose Garden, the organization presents a presidential turkey and a vice-presidential turkey to the incumbent president. The VP turkey is the alternate or backup to the presidential turkey just in case it cannot fulfill its duties.

So in 1989, George Bush senior decided to grant a presidential pardon to the two birds he was presented with. And every year since then, the turkeys presented to the sitting president have been pardoned. Before 2005, the turkeys were sent to live out their lives in Frying Pan Park somewhere in Virginia. From 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkeys were sent to Disneyland (either in California or in Florida). These turkeys served as grand marshals (honorary) during the past Disney Thanksgiving Day parades. 2010’s pardoned turkeys were sent to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.

Below are the names of the turkeys that were pardoned since 2002:

2002 George W. Bush - Katie and Zack (alternate)
2003: Bush - Stars and Stripes (alternate)
2004: Bush - Biscuits and Gravy (alternate)
2005: Bush - Marshmallow and Yam (alternate)
2006: Bush – Flyer and Fryer (alternate)
2007: Bush - May and Flower (alternate)
2008: Bush – Pumpkin was the backup; the original was Pecan who fell ill prior to the ceremony
2009: President Barack Obama – Courage and Carolina (alternate)
2010: Obama – Apple and alternate Cider (alternate)

U.S. governors have also joined the turkey pardoning bandwagon and have their own turkey pardoning ritual every Thanksgiving.

A parade of mega-huge balloons and elaborate floats

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City is the biggest and most anticipated parade every fourth Thursday of November for many years now. But it was Gimbel’s, a Philadelphia department store, which started it all. The year was 1920. After four years, Macy’s launched its own parade spearheaded by its employees. The Macy’s parade has been the gold standard ever since.

The parade route is about 2.5 miles long with more than 2-3 million people lining the streets to watch marching bands, performers, giant hot air balloons in all shapes and sizes and huge floats (sometimes carrying celebrities) pass by. Cast members of currently running Broadways shows and Radio City Music Hall Rockettes often grace the event. Back in 1924 though, animals from the city’s Central Park Zoo were the attraction during the parade together with employees dressed in colorful costumes.

For those who cannot make it to New York, they can catch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the boob tube. It has been televised since 1947.

Black Friday

For those who are out for a bargain or are simply certified shopaholics, it is best not to overeat on Thanksgiving Day. Why? Because after Thanksgiving Day comes Black Friday! This particular Friday ushers in the start of Christmas shopping. Retailers offer sales, promos and discounts not to be missed by those who want to save money on clothes, toys, appliances, electronic devices and other products.

The term Black Friday was coined in Philadelphia sometime in the 60’s to describe the heavy traffic (pedestrian and vehicle alike) that happened after Thanksgiving Day. By 1975, the term’s popularity extended beyond the borders of Philly. An alternative meaning was given to the term later on. Black Friday was used to describe the point when retailers start to make a profit. Back in the day, red ink was used to designate losses in accounting books, ledgers and records, while black ink was used to indicate profit.

Today, more than 130 million Americans shop on Black Friday according to the National Retail Federation. The crowds are massive outside shopping malls and retails stores. Many retailers open as early as 4 in the morning (or even earlier). Shoppers have to be in good health and need all their strength and mental acuity to get what they want. Therefore, it is never a good idea to over eat on Thanksgiving is a big no-no. Otherwise, someone else will snatch the great bargains they have been eagerly waiting to get their hands on.

Pigskin games

Some believe that the tradition of playing (for players) and watching (for spectators) of football every fourth Thursday of November was started in 1934 by the National Football League (NFL). This is fiction because the American Intercollegiate Football Association had its first championship game during the 1876 Thanksgiving Day.

In 1934, the NFL joined the tradition when the Chicago Bears came to Detroit to play against the Detroit Lions. The two teams played at the stadium of the University of Detroit with roughly 26,000 spectators in attendance. Every year since then, the Lions would play a rival team every Thanksgiving Day, except of course in the years when World War II was raging on. Today, Thanksgiving without football is simply unthinkable to many fans.

Thanksgiving is a few days away. The original intent of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving was to celebrate the fruits of their labor and give thanks to God for the bounty and good health they so generously received. Today, Thanksgiving should be no different. Everyone should give thanks and be grateful for anything good in their lives, be it material wealth, good health or the love and support of family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving!

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