Consistent with Thanksgiving’s history, this year, 2020, hasn’t been one to rave about. Thanksgiving is about remembering that things could be worse and that we should be thankful that we are here. This year, we’ve survived a contested national election, an epidemic, and harsh responses by government to the epidemic. COVID-19 took many lives and many small businesses lost their customers and disappeared. Children stayed home during lockdowns and spent a school year outside the classroom. But we’re still here, and looking forward. We are thankful.
According to current rules we’ll have fewer large capacity feasts and massive parades this year. People are beginning to ignore rules, but everyone still is aware of the dangers of contracting the virus.
About ten year’s ago in a year full of feasts, parades and football, I published a brief history of Thanksgiving for northernneck.com, a local on-line newspaper. The following is what I wrote then. History doesn’t change: Thanksgiving has always been about people recognizing that things may be tough, but we’ve survived.
Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America took place in Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the coast. He claimed the land for Spain and offered a prayer of thanks for safe passage. Later, on September 8, 1565 Spanish settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida, sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and local Indians with food from ships—hardtack, beans and wine.
Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving festivals for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Thanksgiving’s history for English-speaking Europeans began in Virginia on September 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation. There thirty-eight settlers, all men, gave thanks and proclaimed that thereafter the day of the ship’s arrival would be observed as a religious day of Thanksgiving. In Massachusetts, Plymouth’s first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a harvest feast, and involved the Wampanoag Indians. The menu is uncertain, but foods available included wild fowl and venison.
The 1621 Pilgrim feast wasn’t repeated, but Thanksgiving’s history progressed. Over the years New England developed an annual tradition of thanksgiving prayers after the harvest. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and by the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. Since then every President has issued an annual Thanksgiving proclamation.
Thanksgiving: An Official Legal Holiday
Finally, in 1941 Congress established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. World War II raged, and President Roosevelt delivered a famous speech celebrating four freedoms: for speech and worship, and from want and fear. Norman Rockwell created four paintings commemorating the speech. He depicted “Freedom from Want” as a family Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey.
The Norman Rockwell paintings were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The Treasury Department toured the paintings around the country, selling over $130 million in war bonds.
Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday, characterized by parades, football games and turkey dinners. The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday or the official start of the retail Christmas season.
Thanksgiving dinner normally consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The National Turkey Federation estimated that about 46 million turkeys were consumed by Americans last year at Thanksgiving. Cranberry sauce is a very American tradition. The cranberry is one of only three fruits—the others are blueberries and concord grapes—to be native to American soil.
A Thanksgiving Story
Aside from the old question, “Why did the turkey cross the road?” (Answer: it was the chicken’s day off), there are many turkey tales.
A pro football team once finished daily practice, when a large turkey strutted onto the field. While the players gazed in amazement, the turkey walked up to the head coach and demanded a tryout. Everyone stared in silence as the turkey caught pass after pass and ran right through the defensive line. When the turkey returned to the sidelines, the coach shouted, “You’re terrific!!! Sign up for the season, and I’ll see to it that you get a huge bonus.” “Forget the bonus, the turkey said, “All I want to know is, does the season go past Thanksgiving Day?”