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America's Holiday -- Part 1

Columnist takes a peak at the some of the interesting, and rather surprising, history behind Thanksgiving.

It originated in 1607 on what was originally the southern shore of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It took 13 more years and near starvation for it to continue. In fact 46 of the 102 pilgrims who made that 1620 voyage did not survive. If not for the kindness and nurturing of the local Native Americans perhaps none would have survived, but they did. To pay homage to their new friends and Almighty God the Plymouth settlers invited some 90 or so local tribesmen to join them in what was a three-day festival of thanks and harvest.

And thus was the first Thanksgiving celebration.

They feasted on clams, and lobster, and venison, and wild fowl, and fruits, and local vegetables, and nuts. Beans, peas, carrots, onions, plums, grapes that grew wild were included. They knew of potatoes but believed them to be poisonous. (visionary?) The tradition grew in the rural areas south of Boston and north of York. It encompassed most of Connecticut. The Natives were excluded sometime around 1729 as the colonists were at war with "the native heathens.”

In 1777 representatives from the 13 colonies agreed to have a national day of thanks to be celebrated on June 29th but the Puritanical beliefs of many of America's new citizens would not honor a holiday that did not incorporate a saintly event or Biblical happening. The idea faded until George Washington himself proclaimed a national day of thanks. The year was 1789, the day was Nov.26. Yet still it was much ado about nothing.

Sometime around 1820, a women's magazine editor and novelist named Sara Josepha Haly (author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb") began a lobbyist movement that lasted some 40 years. Sara was persistent in her writing to all of the state's governors and a succession of presidents until in 1863 President Abe Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November "Thanksgiving Day". He also granted all government employees a paid holiday. Yet Thanksgiving still was mostly a rural New England event. Before church, the men would gather for the annual "turkey shoot.” After church the community would gather as did their ancestors and celebrate with an abundance of food.

As America grew, so did Thanksgiving and many merchants were concerned that a holiday so close to Christmas was bad for business (some things never change!). In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back a week as to allow for more shopping time. In 1946 a Congressional proclamation returned Thanksgiving to its original Thursday and, with a renewed sense of pride and patriotism, the holiday prospered. Technology introduced a new hybrid turkey that topped the scale at 25 or so pounds and, coupled with aggressive marketing, a new symbol of America's abundance was created.

This year we will slaughter some 270 million turkeys to the tune of some 5 BILLION pounds. That's a per capita rate of 18 pounds per U.S. citizen!  It took a while but I guess Thanksgiving finally caught on! Stayed tuned for more on America's Holiday.

 

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