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Reflections: Bringing Thanksgiving into the limelight

I always feel a bit sorry for Thanksgiving. Sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, it gets no commercial attention in its own right, serving only as a day after which the holiday shopping can begin in earnest. It has neither costumes and candy nor music and presents, and it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm to decorate with Pilgrims and turkeys. But Thanksgiving does have a unique history. I think I learned a version of it in third grade, but that was a long time ago, so I am thankful to have Google to refresh my memory.

Though not without dispute, the first Thanksgiving has generally been reported to have been held in November 1621; some scholars now think it was as early as late September. The 53 (out of 100) surviving Pilgrims at Plymouth invited members of the Wampanoag tribe to a three-day celebration of the autumn harvest. The four surviving adult women were in charge of the cooking. (No surprise there.)

According to a historical account by Plymouth resident Edward Winslow, Governor Bradford sent four men on “a fowling mission” for the event. Wild turkey was plentiful (same now, but I’m not thankful). It is likely other birds were served as well, such as ducks, geese, and swans. There would not have been bread stuffing, but instead, a mixture of Native American herbs, onions, and nuts. The Wampanoag brought five deer, which they roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire. No doubt seafood—mussels, lobster, bass, clams, and oysters—was also on the menu.

Eels were likely on the table at that first Thanksgiving. Squanto, a Patuxet who knew English, had taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels. Winslow wrote that Squanto had once brought as many eels, “fat and sweet,” as he could lift with his hand. “He trod them out with his feet and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.” Winslow points out that eels proved essential to the survival of the Pilgrims. (I would not have survived.)

The Pilgrims would have had onions, beans, spinach, cabbage, squash, carrots, and perhaps peas. Corn, which Squanto had taught the colonists to cultivate, would have been served, but in a rich mush, like a porridge, perhaps sweetened with molasses. (Alas, there were no mashed potatoes for another century.)

They would have had fruits—blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, and raspberries—but they would not have eaten cranberries since there was no sugar available to sweeten the tart fruit for eating. It would be 50 years before cranberry sauce or relish would be on the table.

And pies, so much a part of later holidays, would not have been part of the first Thanksgiving. After that first year, there was no butter or wheat flour left with which to make a crust. And there was no oven for baking.

This first Thanksgiving day was followed by other days of thanksgiving, held on various days of the year in different colonies. George Washington declared a thanksgiving day in December of 1777 in celebration of the defeat of the British at Saratoga, and other presidents also proclaimed days of thanksgiving. But it wasn’t until 1863 that President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, to be held on the last Thursday in November.

Political partisanship was alive and well back then, too, as seen in the bickering that arose in 1939 over the date for Thanksgiving. November had five Thursdays that year. Because the nation was still suffering from the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of the month to allow one more week for merchants to profit from Christmas shoppers. (This may have been the beginning of Thanksgiving’s suffering indignities—now shopping begins even before its day is over.)

The added week would have been especially important back then since commercial advertising for Christmas before Thanksgiving was deemed inappropriate. (How appropriate!) Republicans denounced the change of date, calling it an affront to the memory of Lincoln. Nov. 30 became referred to as the Republican Thanksgiving and Nov. 23 as the Democratic Thanksgiving or “Franksgiving.” As the president’s decision could not be enforced, 23 states chose to celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 23, and 22 chose Nov. 30. Texas took both Thursdays as government holidays. In 1941 it became federal law that Thanksgiving be held the fourth Thursday of November.

At least Thanksgiving has its fixed date and can’t be pushed around anymore. And maybe it enjoys being an oasis of calm between its two frenzied neighbors.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the Harvard Press Nov. 23, 2016.

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