Most of us know something about Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, but not the whole story. We know the holiday has something to do with the Pilgrims celebrating a successful harvest after a particularly difficult year and inviting the local Wampanoag Indians over to take part in the feast.
But there is more to it than that. Yes, the Pilgrims in the Plymouth colony did have a Harvest Feast in 1621. And during colonial times, various Harvest Festivals were held in many of the colonies on different dates, usually in October. In November 1789, George Washington declared an official day of thanksgiving after the Constitution was signed, but that was just one day. It was Abraham Lincoln in 1863, over 70 years later, in the midst of the Civil War, who made Thanksgiving Day a national holiday to be celebrated every year on the last Thursday of November. His official declaration is interesting to read, because even in the middle of that terrible war, he rightly saw that there are always reasons for Americans to be thankful and optimistic about the future.
Lincoln was persuaded to declare a Thanksgiving Day holiday by Sarah Hale, a feisty writer and magazine editor who felt a national day of thanks might help unite the country. (Let’s hear it for female magazine editors!) She lobbied for the holiday for years and wrote, “We have too few holidays. . . . Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people. There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures.”
Want some facts to interest the kids while the turkey is being carved?
Well, the main course for the Pilgrims at that first Harvest feast wasn’t turkey but probably venison, supplied by their Indian guests. And the meal definitely didn’t include pumpkin pie, bread rolls, or stuffing. The Pilgrims had no ovens and very little sugar.
The Pilgrims didn’t use forks, so it was knives, spoons, and fingers only for the first Thanksgiving.
Each year, the president pardons a turkey, and nobody knows exactly why. Some say it happens because Abraham Lincoln pardoned his son Tad’s pet turkey.
The average American consumes 4,500 calories at a Thanksgiving dinner, but then who really cares? Just pass the mashed potatoes.
And here are some extra “helpings” to enrich your family’s celebration of this special day:
Attend a local Thanksgiving service. Then, around the dinner table, ask everyone to “count their blessings” by sharing what they are most thankful for.
Ask one of the younger family members to tell the story of the first Pilgrim celebration. A book that a third or fourth grader can read aloud to the family is Pilgrim’s First Thanksgiving by Ann McGovern and Elroy Freem, or The First Thanksgiving by Linda Hayward.
You can also get them involved in doing some craft projects. One of the nicest, suggested by Enchanted Learning, is making a “Thankful Tree.” First, have the kids trace an outline of their hands on colored construction paper and cut it out. Then, they can write their names and what they are thankful for on their “hands.” Finally, make a tree with plenty of branches out of brown construction paper and paste it to another sheet or a bulletin board. Tack or paste the hands on the tree.
Commit the family to an act of community service during the holiday season that begins after Thanksgiving — help re-stock a food pantry, contribute toys to a toy drive, bake cookies for a charity bazaar, work at a food bank. You can find many opportunities in every community. Make the kids understand that giving is part of Thanksgiving as well.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.