As we approach the 2009 holiday season we pause to give thanks for the blessings of good friends, organic eggnog, and unemployment compensation. And we are reminded that Thanksgiving is not just about spending the day with the people and entrees we love. It's about remembering all of that tedious American history we never heard of.
As you recall, America was not always 50 Red and Blue states governed by B-movie actors, American League franchise owners, and hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Before the United States there were The 13 Colonies; before that, The Commonwealth. Before that, there were native tribes awaiting boatloads of undocumented Europeans.
Once upon a time, the first Thanksgiving took place in The New World, or as the natives called it, The 'Hood. Several events laid claim to the first feast of thanks. In September 1565, Spanish settlers celebrated their safe landing in what is now Florida. They feasted and gave thanks, but the next day there was no shopping whatsoever. In December 1619, the Virginia Colony declared their day of thanks. The spirit was right but it was still the wrong month.
Finally, in Plymouth in October 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians were preparing to celebrate their shared harvest in true colonial style, but the caterer wasn't available until the fourth Thursday of November. So she promised to make it up to them with an all-you-can-eat buffet. Done. For three days they feasted on duck, goose, venison, fish, fruit, veggies, and, of course, gluten-free stuffing... and not a single drumstick. So what's up with the turkey, you wonder? As the story goes, turkey was the common name for fowl. To this day, turkeys nationwide are lobbying to set this straight.
By the 1800s, Thanksgiving was recognized on a different day by each state. This got confusing when you lived in New Hampshire and your friends lived in Maine and you'd arrive with your potluck marshmallow sweet potatoes to find out that Maine celebrated Thanksgiving a week ago.
A magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for a single national holiday. For 40 years she wrote letters obsessively to every governor and every president, demanding a national Thanksgiving Day. Rumor has it they didn't write back. But this is a lesson about not taking "No" for an answer, not to mention ignoring a restraining order. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln caved. He proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving, and then he went back to commanding the Civil War.
Decades later, businesses complained that the fourth Thursday made Christmas shopping season too short. This is another lesson about not taking "No" for an answer, especially when you're the retailers lobby. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt caved, and he moved the holiday to the third Thursday. This raised protests from consumers who had already invited their families, so nah nah nah, they refused to change. In 1941, FDR caved again, reinstating Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November. And everyone lived happily ever after, except the retailers. Which is why today, Thanksgiving is followed by the mandatory 18-hour shopping day. And lest we forget, the 14-day Feast of Turkey Leftovers, followed by 11 months that are generally tryptophan-free. And that's something to be thankful for. Please pass the gravy.