Weird Thanksgiving Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

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Not many people know that my grandmother was the worst cook in the world, and her Thanksgiving concoctions, which she thought would rival Kraft recipes, would have driven the native Americans to massacre the Pilgrims. Had they done that, my family wouldn’t face the yearly attack on our taste buds, and smallpox-laden blankets would be killing those leaving Europe a week after disembarking, saving this nation from too many highway billboards, Kardashians, and Walmarts.

In December 1620, the first Pilgrims landed, and built their settlement site in the middle of the homeland of Wampanoag people. Several years earlier, a plague brought by Europeans had killed the inhabitants of the village.

The famous Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony Massachusetts in 1621 is traditionally regarded as the first American Thanksgiving. However, there are actually 12 claims to where the “first” Thanksgiving took place: two in Texas, two in Florida, one in Maine, two in Virginia, and five in Massachusetts. In 1541 Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and his troops celebrated a “Thanksgiving” while searching for New World gold in what is now the Texas Panhandle. Later such feasts were held by French Huguenot colonists in present-day Jacksonville, Florida (1564), by English colonists, and Abnaki Indians at Maine’s Kennebec River (1607), and in Jamestown, Virginia (1610), when the arrival of a food-laden ship ended a brutal famine.

The Pilgrim’s thanksgiving feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21, and November 1. It lasted three days, and included 50 surviving pilgrims, and approximately 90 Wampanoag Indians, including Chief Massasoit. Their menu differed from modern Thanksgiving dinners, and included berries, shellfish, boiled pumpkin, and venison.

thanksgiving.iconsThe Pilgrims most likely would not have survived without the help of Tisquantum (Squanto, c. 1580-1622). Squanto knew English, and had already been back, and forth across the ocean to England three times (most often as a captured slave). Some historians have suggested that he was later poisoned by the Wampanoag.

Thanksgiving is often considered the site of the first cultural war because it contains both a narrative of the birth of freedom and democracy as well as an account of racism, mistreatment of Native Americans, and conflict. Every Thanksgiving, a group of Native Americans and their supporters gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning. The flyer for the event in 2006 reads, in part, “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors, and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. Held every year on the island of Alcatraz since 1975, “Unthanksgiving Day” commemorates the survival of Native Americans following the arrival, and settlement of Europeans in the Americas. The famous “Pilgrim, and Indian” story featured in modern Thanksgiving narratives was not initially part of early Thanksgiving stories, largely due to tensions between Indians, and colonists.

Forefather’s Day also celebrates the Pilgrims, but it celebrates their landing at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620 rather than the plentiful harvest in 1621. It is celebrated on December 21, and usually only in New England. Forefather’s Day was first celebrated in 1769 among a group of pilgrim descendants, having grown from the original few that survived the trip from Europe.

When George Washington advocated for a national Thanksgiving celebration, a number of other founding fathers, and statesmen were supportive of the measure. Thomas Jefferson was not one of them. Jefferson referred to the idea as, “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” The holiday wouldn’t be anything until Lincoln signed a proclamation making it the last Thursday of November in 1863. This was after Sarah Hale, the editor of the women’s mag Lady Godfrey’s Book, and creator of the, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme, repeatedly hounded Congress with letters to institute it.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving to try to stimulate the holiday economy. Instead of the fourth Thursday of the month, he moved it up a week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Many Republicans protested the bump, declaring November 23 to be “Democrat Thanksgiving” (or “Franksgiving”), and November 30 to be “Republican Thanksgiving.” Many state governors defied his proclamation, and celebrated the holiday on the last Thursday of the month, anyway.

Man Carving Roast ChickenAlthough we know of the Mayflower as the vessel used to transport pilgrims over to the Americas, this was not its original intended use. It was meant to be a wine transport vessel. Of its 102 passengers, only 41 of them were actually Pilgrims, the religious separatists from Holland. The rest were “strangers,” the label applied to merchants, workers, craftsmen, orphans, and indentured servants seeking refuge, or fortune in a new land. Only about 50 of the Mayflower passengers would survive to see the first Thanksgiving and five of those were women.

The Pilgrims didn’t dress in all black with tall hats, and oversized buckles all over everything. This representation of pilgrims began in the 19th century, when illustrators needed to create an image of the European settlers, who were becoming more recognizable as part of the Thanksgiving myth. This style of clothing was popular among fashionable classes in England in the 17th century, one that artists were more familiar with, and appropriated for illustrated use. For instance, buckles would have been too expensive for poor settlers, and simple leather laces, and straps for shoes, and pants would have been more likely among the religious group.

Turkeys have heart attacks. When the Air Force was conducting test runs, and breaking the sound barrier, fields of turkeys they flew over would drop dead.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday largely because stores hope the busy shopping day will take them out of the red, and into positive profits. Black Friday has actually been a tradition since the 1930s… not including the sales of flatscreen TVs and other electronics.

So, this year, give thanks for an easier life than the original settlers, the native Americans, fowls that suffer heart attacks, and those of us that face grandmother’s odd recipes that did in grandfather years ago. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Images ©GL Stock Images

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Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider

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