Some Thoughts On Turkey Day

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, oil painting by William Halsall, from Wikipedia

Thanksgiving Day

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Fe, NM, when I overheard two men discussing the upcoming holiday in Spanish. To them it was a secular “Anglo” holiday, which could be enjoyed by anybody, who appreciated a well-cooked turkey and a day off. In fact, a little research into the popular national day of rest revealed that Thanksgiving is only widely celebrated in the United States and Canada with the Canadian holiday coming in early October instead of late November. Fixings are about the  same for both nations, but in Canada, Thanksgiving is a three-day (Sat., Sun., Mon.) holiday instead of the normal four in the U.S. Furthermore, in Canada, the popular feast is not tied to any narrative history, like it is in the United States.

Thanksgiving grace in Pennsylvania
Thanksgiving prayer before the meal, Pennsylvania 1942, photo from Farm Security Administration

The Spanish Main
Some historians and cultural commentators are quick to point out that similar feasts or expressions of thanksgiving exist in other parts of North America that predate the 1621 celebration in Massachusetts. Harvest type celebration are cited as having occurred in Florida, Virginia and Texas, years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Despite these observations, the New England meeting of European colonists and Massachusetts Native still remains the common told tale of Thanksgiving and thus serves as the philosophical background for the holiday.

Roast Turkey
Roast turkey is the most common meat served at a Thanksgiving dinner, Photo by M. Rehemtulla, from Wikipedia

About the Food
Though the original feast is reportedly to have had many types of wild game (i.e. fish, lobster, eels, goose and deer), the turkey has become the dominant meat symbol for the November get-together. Although wild turkeys were found in many parts of North America, they were quite abundant in Colonial New England, and so became an important part of the diet for the new arrivals from the Old World. Also important to the American colonists were the Native grown foods of corn, squash, beans and pumpkins. Originally developed in Mexico and Central America over several thousand years ago, these agricultural staples were readily adopted by the early explorers and those who followed after them.

Squanto teaching
Squanto (Tisquantum in the Native tongue) was one of the local Indians, who taught the Pilgrims how to survive, from Wikipedia

The Mayflower and the Massachusetts Indians

The travelers aboard the Mayflower were headed for Virginia, but forced to land at Cape Cod because of bad weather. Many of those on board were enraged at having to spend the winter in snowy Massachusetts. Between the November landing and March, when the local Indians first visited the outpost about half of the Pilgrims died. However, because of contact with previous explorers some of the local Indians could understand English and were glad to teach the new colonists how to survive. This was an event that was always repeated in other parts of the New World.

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