by Hugh Gilmore
If you’ve picked up this newspaper on Thanksgiving Day, you’re probably seeking relief from the sight of your relatives, the smell of allspice and the sound of televised football. You’re pretending you’re just curious about this local news-rag because the kitchen is too steamy and the living room is full of people.
It might be smart to take it with you and go out to the carport to regain your sanity. We understand you don’t have the time to read an entire, well-thought-out article about a deep, life-significant issue. That’s OK, we’ll be compliantly superficial and only provide you with conversational snippets. They might help you get through dinner when you go back inside.
First, did you ever think about this? Thanksgiving is the one holiday shared by all Americans, no matter what religion they profess, no matter what their ethnic origins are (except for some recent immigrants and most Native Americans), and no matter their skin color (but not green).
The truth about Thanksgiving’s origins lies somewhere between “Peanuts”-like fantasy and “Simpsons”-like irony. That is, you’d have to read about 50 books and 2,000 Internet fables to find out just what inexactly happened back there in Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. But that’s not our business here today.
One thing you definitely can tell your family about at the table is Squanto. He is credited with being the Native American who taught the colonists how to plant corn, grow gourds and farm eels. His real name was Tisquantum. We’ll say Squanto, though, because this is America and we prefer nicknames. Squanto was from the Patuxet tribe, part of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
Squanto helped the colonists, despite the fact that some years earlier a few Englishmen captured him and brought him back to England, involuntarily, as an object of curiosity. He was returned to America a few years later, only to be captured by slavers who tried to sell him in Spain. He was saved by Friars so that they could attempt to convert him to Christianity. Eventually he returned to England, was employed as a guide and interpreter for voyagers, and altogether made four transatlantic crossings.
On one of them, in 1619, he returned home to find nearly his entire Patuxet tribe wiped out by diseases (most likely, smallpox) brought by the white settlers.
Let’s not get into these downer aspects of American history though. Try this: The idea of a “Day of Thanksgiving” was fairly common throughout the American colonies, with several early 17th-century celebrations having been held in the Virginia colonies, including one in Jamestown in 1610.
And actually the “earliest” claim has been made for Sept. 8, 1565, when Spanish Admiral Pedro Menedez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, Fla., declared a day of thanksgiving. After a celebratory mass, Spanish settlers and the local Timucuan Indians enjoyed a feast together.
The settlers of Plymouth Colony did not hold their three-day feast with the Wampanoag Indians until 56 years later – Nov. 21, 1621. Practically yesterday.
Oh, and they never called themselves Pilgrims, nor did anyone else call them that until the 1870s.
They did get all the credit though, probably since so many of our early American writers and publishers were from New England. The Continental Congress proclaimed national days of Thanksgiving many times during the Revolutionary War, always as solemn days of giving thanks to God.
When folks at your family’s table get to arguing when Thanksgiving was first declared a national holiday, wait till they’re flinging stuffing at one another to say, “Abraham Lincoln, October, 1863.” He said it should be celebrated on the “the final Thursday” of November each year.
But wait – in 1939, during the Great Depression, November had five Thursdays. The Federated Department Stores (later, Macy’s) convinced FDR to move up the holiday by a week, so there’d be more time for Christmas shopping. Roosevelt agreed, as an economy booster, and called for a “fourth Thursday” holiday.
The Republicans opposed his interference with what the Founding Fathers had declared. The result: 23 states celebrated on the fourth Thursday and 22 on the final Thursday. In 1941 Congress settled the matter by declaring for the fourth.
And by the way, if you’re starting to freeze out there in the carport while you pretend to be taking up smoking again, here’s another factoid: The earliest possible date for Thanksgiving is Nov. 22, the latest is the 28th. Yes, this year’s.
You’re wondering, probably, just how do Native Americans observe Thanksgiving Day? Some celebrate it just like us Peninsula folks in Chestnut Hill – turkey, extra dry, with a martini basting. Other Native Americans get together merely as a family holiday. Some simply ignore the occasion. And some others see the “American” holiday as a national celebration of genocide. They declare it “Unthanksgiving Day.” A number even gather to observe a “National Day of Mourning” at Plymouth Rock. Probably better not to get into all that at the table, though.
You can come back to the dining room now. Pumpkin pie is about to be served and the football game is winding down. And you’ve now got plenty of Thanksgiving information they’ll be grateful to hear.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of “Scenes from a Bookshop” and “Malcolm’s Wine,” two stories based on his days operating a used-book shop in Chestnut Hill. Both they and other writings by him are available through bookstores and via Amazon.com, in both paperback and e-book formats.