A Brief History of Thanksgiving (Some of It True)

Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the United States each November since 1863 before officially being signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, fixing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

While many believe that the roots of Thanksgiving are religious, giving thanks to God for His bounty, many historians note that the practice of a Fall harvest festival predates Christianity. Across Europe, harvest festivals were common since before the Druids in 200 BCE.

In the United States, school children are taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts. Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians (now Native Americans) sat down for a Thanksgiving meal. This is part of our American history.

However, this sit-down had some lasting consequences for the Wampanoag.

Yes, the colonists did, indeed, invite local Wampanoag Indians to dinner. But this was not an act of goodwill. The colonists noted how the Indians had not only learned to cultivate and live off the land, but many had also mastered the knack of cooking savory, mouth-watering dishes. A few of the older colonist wives hoped to steal the Indian’s recipes.

Big surprise. Doesn’t this happen in every family? Doesn’t everyone have a relative who is known for a special dish, but that master chef promises to take that baking secret or recipe to his or her grave?

The Indians cannot be faulted for their hesitance to join the colonists. However, at the urging of the Wampanoag chief, a few Indians ended up attending and brought a few dishes to share (A-G: main dish; H-N: appetizer or salad; O-Z: dessert). The chief hoped that this little gesture of goodwill would please the colonists and, perhaps, prevent the massacre of his tribe.

While some tribe members praised the chief for his forethought, historians point out that not everyone was happy with this decision. Researcher Hux Finn recently found the memoir written by the wife of that Indian chief. In it she wrote, “I told my husband NOT to feed them. ‘If you feed them,’ I said, ‘they will NEVER leave!'”

A final accidental occurrence the night before that first harvest festival is worth mentioning. John Butterball stepped out for a smoke before going to bed, and he carelessly flicked his butt near the small pen where he had domesticated a few turkeys. By morning, the pen was a smoldering  ash heap. A selfish man, Butterball decided to keep the tuna casserole his wife had made for Harvest Fest, and he washed off the dead birds and brought them for dinner. Much to his surprise, smoked turkey became a big hit.

As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”

Enjoy your holiday. Eat and drink responsibly!

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