Days of Thanksgiving
October 28, 2023
Fall happens to be my favorite time of year. I love the crisp days, the golds and reds of the trees and the food, with the Mother of all feasts on the last Thursday of November.
Our American Thanksgiving celebration has its roots in pagan fall harvest festivals and Protestant Days of Thanksgiving from the 1500s. Mabon, one of eight pagan holidays celebrated during the year, takes place at the fall equinox (Sept. 23 this year). By this point in the season, pagan farmers knew if their summer crops had done well. Assuming yes, they would have enough food for winter so it was a good time to give thanks.
Protestants would set aside various Days of Thanksgiving throughout the year. A good harvest, recovery from sickness or even rain when it was most needed could be named a Day of Thanksgiving. On these special days, the faithful would spend the day in church giving thanks to God, then have a feast.
According to Wikipedia, the first documented American Thanksgiving was in Virginia on Dec. 4, 1619, when 38 English settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred [Plantation] and promptly had a celebration to commemorate their arrival. The more familiar Thanksgiving is related to the Pilgrims who came to Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1621 they decided to celebrate a particularly good harvest along with their Native American friends.
President George Washington was the first to issue a proclamation for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 "for the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving." However, this was just a one-time event. Turns out a woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of "Godey's Lady Book" a popular magazine of the time, was instrumental in creating the perpetual Thanksgiving holiday. On Sept. 28, 1863, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking for a permanent day of thanksgiving. Apparently, Lincoln agreed. Five days later on Oct. 3, 1863, he issued a proclamation declaring, "I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."
Apparently, bragging rights for the first/oldest Thanksgiving was a big deal. On Nov. 5, 1963, President Kennedy settled it in grand political style stating, "Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God."
Which is to say, who cares? Let's just eat and be thankful.
The modern American Thanksgiving table is laden with foods that we think of as traditional such as turkey, cranberry relish and cornbread. Wild turkeys were abundant in 1600s America – around 10 million birds – so seem the obvious meat of choice. However, some sources suggest duck or geese beat out turkey for the first Thanksgiving. Venison and fish were common foods of the time and may have been served as well. Two Founding Fathers rallied for turkey on the table: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) thought so highly of the turkey he suggested it be named the national bird. (Fortunately, the bald eagle won out.) And in the late 1700s, Alexander Hamilton supposedly said, "no citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." By the mid-1800s, deer and geese were history and turkey was established as the traditional meat of Thanksgiving.
Cranberries (known as sassamensch by the Algonquins) are one of the few fruits indigenous to North America, and were long used by Native Americans for food, dye, and medicine. They grow on long vines that can live over 100 years. The vines don't actually grow in water, but do love boggy ground, a trait that modern cranberry farmers use to aid in harvest. After the berries have ripened, the farmer lightly floods the bog with water then drives through on a tractor fitted with two rake-like implements that knock the berries off the vines. Then more water is added to the field so the berries float well above the vines and can easily be sucked up by a giant harvesting vacuum.
The original Thanksgiving table may have had a bowl of cranberries. End of that tart story for a couple hundred years. It wasn't until the early 1800s when granulated sugar became an affordable household staple that cranberry sauce became popular, and even so it was just a condiment to serve on occasion. Then in 1864, General Ulysses Grant ordered that his troops be served a helping of cranberry sauce for their Thanksgiving meal, and sweetened cranberry sauce became established as a Thanksgiving condiment.
Modern cornbread is a tip of the hat to the original meal which probably included corn mush or porridge made from ground Indian corn and water. Corn was first domesticated about 7,000 years ago in southern Mexico. From there it spread into the United States as native people migrated north and east. By the time the Pilgrims landed, Indian corn had been a Native American dietary staple for hundreds of years.
In addition to being served as porridge, Indian corn mush was baked to make "bread." In the 1800s people started adding eggs, buttermilk and baking soda, and in the early 1900s sugar and wheat flour were added, creating the modern quickbread we know and love. Interestingly, corn mush is still a thing today found in two versions: polenta and grits, the main difference between them is in how fine the corn is ground. Having eaten both polenta and grits, I can honestly say I'm happy cornbread will be on my Thanksgiving table.
In closing, those of us at "The Loop" wish you and yours a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving with plenty of turkey, cornbread and cranberries (and pie, which I didn't discuss in this article, but there's definitely next year...)