Thanksgiving is again upon us. I think of it as an American holiday, but while several of its aspects are uniquely American, its roots rest in ancient harvest festivals.
Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Celts -- all celebrated these festivals. Ancient Greeks celebrated in honor of Demeter, goddess of plant life and farming; Romans honored Ceres, their harvest goddess.
3,000 years ago, the Hebrews celebrated -- and still celebrate -- Sukkot.
Fast forward to 1621, and we have the Pilgrims' three-day festival. Although it was not our first. Popham colony in Maine recorded one 14 years earlier, and in 1618, on Dec. 4, Berkeley's Hundred, in Virginia, gave thanks for the safe arrival of newcomers.
Days of thanksgiving could be for a village or for a larger community. Often they were days of prayer and fasting, not feasting. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress set aside several days to give thanks for victories over the British.
In 1789, President Washington declared Nov. 26 a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the founding of the American government.
We had to wait until 1863, though, to establish a national holiday. This effort began in 1846, when Sarah Josephus Hale, editor of “Goody's Lady's Magazine,” started campaigning to recognize the last Thursday in November as a national holiday.
Promoting it in her magazine and writing thousands of letters, she finally appealed to President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. By this time she was 75 years old, but she finally prevailed.
Being ever-conscious of American enterprise, in 1939 Franklin Roosevelt moved the day to the third Thursday of November. That year November had five Thursdays, which happened twice during his administration, and he bowed to the wishes of American retailers, allowing an extra week for Christmas shopping.
But ultimately Roosevelt stuck with the fourth Thursday, and on Dec. 26, 1941, Congress made it official.
There is no evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrims' feast. Probably they enjoyed duck, geese, swan, and oysters. The Indians' main crop of corn, mostly ground into meal for cooking, would also have been present. This crop -- shared by the Indians, who taught the colonists how to plant it -- helped secure the colonists' survival.
Other Indian mainstays were squash or pumpkin, beans, wheat, and oats. They taught the colonists how to make medicinal poultices from cranberries, which also became a main source for vitamin C, necessary to ward off scurvy.
The use of these various foods in our modern celebration reflect that early dependence of the colonists on their Indian benefactors. The various fowl they served have been replaced today by our turkeys.
In a typical year, approximately 46 million birds will be roasted in America. This year, with the pandemic, that number will probably be diminished. The industry has already taken a hit because the summer's Renaissance Fairs were canceled, and they're a big consumer of turkey legs.
Of course, those birds wouldn't have arrived on your table anyway, but their various parts might have.
It might remind us that in 1953, Swanson overestimated the number of frozen turkeys they should order. Left with 260 tons of unsold bird, they came up with an innovative idea: pre-made turkey dinners. By Dec. 1954, they had sold 10 million, and the TV dinner industry was born.
This year, some of us will observe the holiday alone or have scaled-back gatherings, in observance of the Covid-19 recommendations. However you pass the day, it will bring unique memories.
You may watch a very different Macy's Parade tomorrow. The festivities will take place in Herald Square (in front of Macy's flagship store). The number of participants has been reduced by 75%, but will feature twenty entertainers and stars.
This annual tradition started in 1924 and featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Of course, it changed substantially in the 90-some years following that, and this year's parade will be unique in its own way.
Meanwhile, in this season of Thanksgiving gatherings, the CDC cautions us to stay home and forego our traditional gathering. Here are a couple of quotes to help keep things in perspective:
Henry David Thoreau--”I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.”
Willie Nelson--”When I started counting my blessings, my whole world turned around.”
However you celebrate, may your blessings be many, your disappoints few, and your thanks-giving unceasing.