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Skunks, Conquistadores, and Killer Balloons: Why Thanksgiving Is The Best Tuesday (or Possibly Thursday) of the Year

We here at Suits by Suits have a bit of a holiday tradition of our own: examining the myths that surround our holidays in order to try and tell as close to the “real story” that we can find.  Sure, it’s a departure from our usual focus on high-level disputes between employers and executives –- okay; it’s almost entirely unrelated -– but hopefully you’ve enjoyed our prior forays into cultural anthropology, including such classics as “How We Got Memorial Day,” two stories on the real meaning of Christmas (part one and part two), and a general expose of how we wound up with all those holidays in the first place.

So fire up the turkey fryer:  it’s time we took on Thanksgiving.

When Was The First Thanksgiving?

As usual, our first stop on any tour through history is good ol’ Wikipedia, which tells us that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1621.  This is what we might call the traditional Thanksgiving story, which involves the Pilgrims sitting down after the first harvest with members of the Wampanoag tribe -- including the legendary translator Squanto -- to share a feast.  The only problem with this story is that the contemporary evidence for it is limited to a brief mention in the (largely self-serving) “History of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford, and a letter from Edward Winslow.  And, as it turns out, even the word “thanksgiving” wasn’t associated with the 1621 feast at all, but was first used by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in connection with a festival held two years later.

But did you know that there are three separate claims from the Sixteenth Century to be the “First Thanksgiving?”  The first allegedly occurred eighty years before Squanto sat down with the Pilgrims.  According to the Texas Society of Daughters of the American Colonists, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, in May of 1541, and was presided over by a Catholic priest.  (Some now claim that this mass was a celebration of the Catholic Feast of the Ascenscion, and not a Thanksgiving.)  Ascension or not, the Society of Daughters managed to erect a plaque that reads “Feast of the First Thanksgiving – 1541” in Palo Duro Canyon in 1959; that marker is still there to this day.

As a Catholic mass, the Palo Duro Canyon “Thanksgiving” lacks what many would consider to be an essential element of “Thanksgiving”:  the coming together of two diverse people groups.  Indeed, as Rick Shenkman notes, “[I]f Thanksgiving had been about religion, the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them.  Besides,the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event.  Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival.”  So maybe that one should be out.

The second claim comes from Saint Augustine, Florida, and ostensibly dates to 1565, after an expedition by conquistador Pedro Menendez de Avile.  Like our traditional story – but unlike the feast possibly held in Texas – Avile’s thanksgiving is also said to have involved sharing the feast with the local Native Americans; in this case, members of the Timucua tribe indigenous to northern Florida.

Finally, the third 16th century claim stems from San Elizario, Texas, a small town outside of El Paso, whose residents claim that the first Thanksgiving celebration took place in 1598 upon the arrival of Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate.

Myths About the Thanksgiving Meal

Of course, none of these festivals – to the extent they really happened – would look much like our modern Thanksgiving meal; as National Geographic points out, potatoes and sweet potatoes were not a regular part of the colonists’ diet in the 1600s, and sugar and other ingredients necessary to make cranberry sauce and pies were prohibitively expensive until at least the Nineteenth Century.  For an authentic meal, National Geographic recommends Wampanoag delicacies such as skunk, blood pudding, and boiled bread.  Yum.

Chances are we won’t convince you to bake up a tasty skunk this Thanksgiving.  But the chances are good that, after eating a big plate full of turkey and settling in front of the TV to watch some football, you might find yourself drifting off to sleep rather early in the evening. Everyone knows that’s the tryptophan in turkey making you drowsy, right?

Turns out that’s yet another myth.  As TIFO points out, medically speaking, tryptophan generally needs to be taken on an empty stomach, without the presence of other amino acids or protein, in order to have any effect.  Even if you haven’t loaded up your plate with stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn, brussels sprouts, hot buttered rolls, and cranberry sauce, you’ll still be getting a ton of protein and other amino acids from that turkey drumstick itself.

No, the reason we get drowsy is much more prosaic:  we’ve just likely consumed several thousand calories of food – plus, if you’re like many of us, several glasses of wine – within a short period of time.  Your body shifts extra resources towards the digestive system and away from your CNS and other organs in order to process this massive meal, and that makes you feel sleepy.  Oh, and alcohol is a depressant, but you probably knew that already.

Nor did the Wampanoag teach the Pilgrims how to make popcorn at that first Thanksgiving.  The local variety of corn available was flint corn – what our parents and grandparents called “Indian Corn,” the colorful, dent-free corn you see used in ornamental cornucopias and other decorations to this day.  Unfortunately, flint corn is low in starch, and you need a dense, starchy interior to put that distinctive “pop” in popcorn.  Flint corn, on the other hand, was typically used in hominy and boiled mush.  Somehow, we’re not surprised that boiled mush failed to take off as a movie theater snack.

Transitioning to Today

If much of what we know about the earliest Thanksgiving specials differs so greatly from much of what we celebrate today, we at least know where to pin the blame:  Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, an influential 19th century writer who penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and agitated tirelessly for nearly 20 years to get Thanskgiving recognized as a national holiday.  (By the 1840s, Thanksgiving was a largely regional holiday celebrated in New England but not in the South.)  In addition to writing to five separate U.S. Presidents, Hale penned regular editorials for Godey’s Lady’s Book accompanied by recipes for turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and other foods that we now consider “traditional” Thanksgiving foods, even though those traditions originated with Hale, not the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag.

After two decades, Hale eventually convinced President Abraham Lincoln – who, it might be pointed out, had an awful lot on his mind at the time – to recognize Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.  Originally set as the fourth Tuesday in November, Thanksgiving was briefly moved to the second-to-last Thursday in November by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939.  Why?  Believe it or not, the same reason as today:  Black Friday.  Yes, FDR wanted an earlier Thanksgiving to lengthen the holiday shopping season.  (Coming out of the Great Depression probably had something to do with this!)

The problem – much to the consternation of the Federalist Society, we’re sure – was that this led to varying practices among the states.  Some continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, while others moved to the second-to-last as per Roosevelt’s decree.  In 1941, Texas – everything’s bigger there, we hear – decided to do both, celebrating two Thanksgivings.

Now Congress may not be able to respond to each and every national emergency, but by golly, when a state is celebrating a gluttonous holiday on two separate days, Washington sprung into action, declaring as a compromise that Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday in November starting in 1942 – meaning that sometimes it would fall on the last Thursday, and sometimes the second-to-last.  (And, apparently, that once every century and a half, it would create Thanksgivukkah, derided by some as a national nightmare, while celebrated by others.) 

And it’s been that way ever since.

Other Traditions

The Macy’s Day parade in New York began in 1924, and, unsurprisingly, began for precisely the same reason as FDR’s executive order:  as a way to kick off the holiday shopping season.  Of course, those first few years were spent working out some kinks; balloons didn’t get helium until 1927, for example, but they’ve flown every year since then with the exception of 1971 when they were grounded for adverse weather conditions.  In 1997, a woman spent 24 days in a coma after being severely injured by a six-story “Cat In the Hat” balloon blown off the parade by 40 mph wind gusts.  Today, the balloons will be grounded if winds exceed 34 mph.

NBC broadcast the first Thanksgiving Day football game in 1934, featuring the Detroit Lions hosting the Chicago Bears; nearly every year since, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day.  (This year, we get three NFL matchups offering roughly 11 hours of football:  Packers-Lions, Raiders-Cowboys, and the Suits By Suits matchup of the week:  Steelers at Ravens.)

Oh, and what about the President’s ceremonial pardon of a turkey?  That tradition goes all the way back… to 1989 under President George H.W. Bush.  Who says Sarah Hale is the only one allowed to make up traditions?

Pass that roast skunk; I’ll have a drumstick!

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