Letís Talk Turkey!
Ah, Thanksgiving…turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie. 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 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.
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 Island 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 goose. What we do know is that venison, shellfish and lobster were served, along with nuts, wheat flour, pumpkins, squash, 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.
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 Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation, the date of Thanksgiving was not fixed until 1941, when President Franklin D. 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 outraged 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 long before Barack Obama became president.
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 S 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…thanks, President Obama!!
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, 1970, until June 11, 1971. They chose Alcatraz as a “big enough symbol” for them to be taken seriously. This annual event is open to the public.
Whether you have a turkey and all the trimmings, or go vegan, have a small dinner or a huge feast, eat in or dine out…take a moment to give thanks for what you have and seriously consider showing your thanks by giving something to those who are less fortunate.
Sources and References
 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
 Addicting Info : http://www.addictinginfo.org - T. Steelman