Thanksgiving, American style

Most Americans know the story of the pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621 expressing recognition for a good harvest and giving thanks, a thanksgiving, at Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts.

It was a three-day celebration where although we may not know for sure, the menu probably included various kinds of meat from birds and other animals, and fresh produce, as well as steaming hot pots of cholent with kishka and potatoes.

Yes, it is little known, but the religious Pilgrims were expert at making the Shabbat stew associated with Jews of European lineage. They not only liked the flavor of the hot dish but appreciated that its origin may have been biblical, in that, it may have been what Jacob was cooking when his brother Esau came back tired and hungry from a day of hunting and rabble rousing.

“Now Jacob cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.” (Genesis 25:29) Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a few bites of the stew and the rest is history.

What? You don’t believe me about the cholent? OK, I made that part up, but who knows? Maybe the Pilgrims did cook something similar at that first Thanksgiving. After all, Pilgrim in Latin means “simmer cooked.” OK, I made that up too.

But how did Thanksgiving become a national holiday in the United States? George Washington, on October 3, 1789, was the first US president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer…

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country…

Abraham Lincoln, at the prodding of one Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, asked for an observance as well. Like Washington, Lincoln made the proclamation on October 3, but in 1863, a horrifically bloody year of the American Civil War.

Only a couple weeks before at the Battle of Chickamauga, nearly 36,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed in just two days of fighting. Only a few months before in July, 51,000 were killed in three days of fighting at Gettysburg.

The 16th President of the United States thought, what better time, than arguably the worst time, to take pause and give thanks. Written by Secretary of State William Seward, the proclamation reads in part:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

Lincoln’s wish became a national customary observance until November 26, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the establishment of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday to be observed on the last Thursday of November.

Of course, in many countries, cultures and religions, people give thanks and express gratitude on certain days of the year or at certain times, or at all times, but Thanksgiving Day here in the United States is as uniquely American and exceptional as is the country of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

And as does happen with unique and exceptional countries, we are not lacking in traditions and customs.

So popular is Thanksgiving that people from far and wide arise on the holiday with great anticipation, slavishly create the most delectable of dishes, procure the smoothest of spirits and negotiate the trickiest of highway hazards, so they can triumphantly arrive at their familial location to… watch football.

Yes, football. When worthy, hearty souls, male and female alike, upon entering Grandma’s house, leave the loved ones at the door, maneuvering through the cousins and the coats to, within seconds, find the couch, the chips and the TV as if there were some highly-tuned internal radar that activates like clockwork on the last Thursday of every November.

By the way, I mean American football to those of you from outside the United States’ borders who enjoy a different kind, one that employs the incessant running back and forth on a very large field, where for the most part, scoring in high numbers is almost null and void. Or should I say “nil” and void. (Hey, no nasty notes, please. I am being humorous. Well, trying to be.)

Ah, turkey. Yum. Well, honestly, I am not a big fan of the gallinaceous bird, but the vast number of my countrymen and women are. Nearly 90% of Americans will chow down on close to 50 million turkeys. At let’s say, 15 pounds a bird, that’s a lot of turkey!

No one knows for sure if the Pilgrims and Native Americans chowed down on the wild version of the turkey which roamed the Plymouth area, and there are varying reasons for the bird being chosen as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, but I am sure the reasons don’t matter much to those patiently (and impatiently) waiting for the gravy.

Now speaking of turkeys, each year the president pardons two. You’ve seen it on the news I am sure. According to legend, President Lincoln had mercy on a donated turkey after his son befriended the doomed bird. John Kennedy may have been the first modern president to spare the life of a holiday turkey, and the domesticated bird has had its photo op a few days before Thanksgiving ever since.

Until 2005, for many years, presidentially-pardoned turkeys would be sent to live out their retirements at, no kidding, Frying Pan Farm Park in Northern Virginia. Just imagine the birds celebrating their escape, saying to each other, “Whew! That was close! Wait! What did it say on that sign?”

No word if the two turkeys Obama will be pardoning this year are named Hillary and Bill. (I had to, sorry. It is both newsworthy and “pardon” timely, don’t you think? Oh, some of you don’t?)

OK, so much does revolve around politics, and this past year has been particularly contentious. It does not mean we should not be opinionated, of course. As Americans, we all have the privilege, even the duty, to express our thoughts, as long as we stay within the confines of the law, and we not bully our fellow citizens.

And although what has happened does not remotely, in any conceivable way, match the great and bloody divide of the nation torn apart by the Civil War, still, it is important to reflect on the last words of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, where he recommended to the American people that they, “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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