When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was the family holiday. Christmas often had in-law interlopers tearing cousins away to other side of the family relation’s houses, but Thanksgiving was typically when we were all together. It was also the time for big life announcements before the trend of gender reveal parties, “save the date” cards, social media and all the other modern things that have stolen the thunder of the in-person kinfolk gathering.
It was also a Lord of the Flies, Hunger Games kind-of occasion as well. The number of chairs at the adult table was immutable. No matter how many adults the family had only a sacred few were ever seated at the adult table. Sure a youngish adult might temporarily move up if outsiders usurped our family holiday causing some relatives to be uncharacteristically absent from the meal but no one moved up permanently until someone at the adult table died — literally.
Death was the proximate cause of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Of the original 102 pilgrims, only 53 survived. They wanted to celebrate their good fortune in living through a harsh winter and other things as well. They had met an English speaking Patuxet named Squanto who taught them to plant corn, squash and beans. That farming success, coupled with the natural bounty of the land combined with their faith in God, gave them hope for the coming year and so they gave thanks.
The Separatists that settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, were a dour lot. They didn’t party at all and also didn’t even celebrate Christmas, viewing the frivolity that accompanied its observance as too “pagan.” However, thanks be to God was another thing entirely and the five lone women who survived prepared the banquet for the 48 white males and the 90 Wampanoag who attended the first Thanksgiving.
Perhaps beginning the tradition of “What can I bring?” the Wampanoag brought five deer to the feast to compliment the turkey, geese, codfish and lobster that were already on the menu. Absent from the first thanksgiving were pumpkin pie (the Pilgrims had no ovens to bake with) and forks; utensils considered so pretentious they were only to be used by the most snooty, and least godly, among us. The tradition of the “kiddie table” dates to the 19th century; before that children stood while the adults were seated during dinner.
Since Thanksgiving was originally about giving God thanks and not really about food or football it took place on Thursday, which was the traditional day of the mid-week church service in early America. The first football game played on Thanksgiving took place at Philadelphia in 1869. The NFL played its first Thanksgiving game November 25, 1920. The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving since 1934. Their owner started the tradition to make more money on stadium admissions and concessions.
Speaking of revenue, Thanksgiving is the least commercialized of all our celebrations but it used to be the starting gun for the beginning of holiday gift buying. Macy’s began “Macy’s Christmas Parade” in 1924 marking Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. That’s why Santa Claus remains a staple of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The idea that Christmas buying didn’t begin until after Thanksgiving was so strong that President Franklin Roosevelt moved it up a week in 1938 to try and help alleviate the depression causing Republicans and traditionalists to call it “Franksgiving.” Congress returned Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941.
Sarah Josepha Hale wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb. She also campaigned vigorously for a national holiday of Thanksgiving finally succeeding in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. This year make room in your home for that cantankerous family member, that politically hopeless inlaw and for goodness sake add some more chairs to the adult table. Happy Thanksgiving and count your bountiful blessings.