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What Do We Really Know About Thanksgiving?


Every year at this time, I set out to write about Thanksgiving. Truly America’s holiday – unless you’re from Canada, in which case, change that to North America and we’re good to go – the celebration was proclaimed a “national day of giving thanks” by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War.

In what might be one of the purest examples of partisan politicking between two men who were not even alive at the same time, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to mess around with Thanksgiving in 1939, but America was having none of it. Interestingly, at the urging of the owner of the department store which would one day be Macy’s, the New Deal President lobbied Congress to bump Thanksgiving up a week and expand the shopping season to get the economy moving out of the Great Depression.

And get this, Congress did it.

Well, this sat about as well as Aunt Sally’s candied yam casserole with Republicans, who claimed the change was an affront to President Lincoln’s memory. As a result, by 1941 half the country celebrated Republican Thanksgiving and a week earlier, the other half had commemorated Democratic Thanksgiving, or as God-fearing non-shoppers liked to call it just to irritate President Roosevelt who really needed more stuff to worry about, Franksgiving.

Once we decided on when it should be celebrated, Thanksgiving immediately started wearing Pilgrim hats and pointy black shoes with buckles. Okay, not really, but it did require some origin story other than Abraham Lincoln thinking it was a swell idea. Historians attach the celebration to a meal shared in 1621 by the Wampanoag people – later renamed the Redskins, hence our obsession with historically accurate mascots – and the Pilgrims, who had no earthly clue what was edible and what wasn’t in the New World.

Seriously, would it ever occur to anyone to eat a squash?

Along the way, eating turkey and pumpkin pie became ingrained in the national Thanksgiving culture, as did watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and watching and/or playing football, although at least half of the guests at the Thanksgiving feast were probably more up for lacrosse (the original American pastime) and the rest of them just wanted to take a nap.

As no one truly knows what that first Thanksgiving was like and this is supposed to be a heart-felt personal narrative, I thought we’d conclude with a short true or false quiz based on what we think we know about Thanksgiving, and you can decide which of these details are real and which ones were fabricated by me:

a) Benjamin Franklin once suggested that the turkey, which he claimed was a “much more respectable bird and a true original native of America,” be part of the great seal of the United States instead of the bald eagle, and that we all eat a bald eagle on the last Thursday of November.

b) One Thanksgiving I roasted a turkey that had been frozen for three years (and partially thawed during a hurricane power outage) and it was the best bird we ever had.

c) What is largely considered the first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days and celebrated an alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, which was sustained for over fifty years and is one of the sole examples of peaceful coexistence between European colonists and the indigenous population of the New World.

d) The first time I prepared Thanksgiving dinner on my own, I purposefully left the bag of turkey innards clearly imprinted “Remove before cooking” inside the cavity, because as a writer, I wanted to make a symbolic statement when the words on the bag were legible, tattoo-like, through the golden brown skin of my inaugural turkey.

e) It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy!

Answer Key: a) True and false, although this has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. b) Possibly true. c) Sad but true. d) There’s no hard evidence to refute this. e) Sounds right to me – and Happy Thanksgiving!

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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