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The surprisingly political history of a national holiday

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Vote for the Turkey!

The surprisingly political history of a national holiday

Practically everything you learned about Thanksgiving in kindergarten, clad in your paper pilgrim hat or cardboard feathers, is untrue. Pilgrims did not first celebrate it in Massachusetts, or in fact, first celebrate it anywhere. Virginia colonists claimed that honor in 1619, one year and 17 days ahead of the Mayflower adventurers.

Nor did Americans have the idea for Thanksgiving in the first place; that would have been King James, who instructed the Berkley Plantation colonists that “the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

In fact, while we’re deposing cherished traditions, we can do away with the idea that Thanksgiving has always been a celebration between colonist and Indian, or even friend and foe. That early Virginia tradition of celebrating peace and security ended rather abruptly in 1622, when local tribes massacred the colonists. The holiday fared little better in the early twentieth century; Thanksgiving became derisively known as “Franksgiving” after FDR moved the date back a week to boost holiday shopping (unsuccessfully). Remarkably, until Congress finally settled matters in 1941, many Democrats and Republicans refused to give thanks on the same day.

There have been more than a few political twists and turns along the way for the turkeys, too. While in recent years the President of the United States has symbolically pardoned a bird, for decades, the National Turkey Federation’s annual turkey presentation ended rather differently: when President Eisenhower received a particularly fine specimen, he ate it. A few years earlier President Harry Truman was asked about his turkey, and quipped, “I’m going to greet him, and then I’m going to eat him.”

Not that things seemed much better for the hapless bird even when reprieves were granted; in recent years, freshly pardoned turkeys were often dispatched to a place in Virginia called, rather suspiciously, Frying Pan Park. Today, more tender-hearted Americans can rejoice as pardoned turkeys are sent to Disney World, where they dwell for the remainder of their well-fed days in the company of fellow fowl Donald Duck.

It’s not only the turkeys who have trouble avoiding the heat. In 2007, President George W. Bush was faced with a new problem:  Virginians who wanted him to pardon a pig. A children’s book author led some 4,000 petitioners in the request, insisting that since ham, not turkey, was likely the very first Thanksgiving meal, pigs should receive presidential beneficence. While they didn’t get their wish, they did get a little recognition: President Bush mentioned the first Virginia feast in a speech while visiting Berkley Plantation.

So what do we know about Turkey Day? While the Pilgrims may not have had the earliest Thanksgiving, they certainly had the best: an abundance of food, peaceful concord with the local natives, and hearts full of gratitude. Thanksgiving Day came to represent thanks for a new nation, and thanks to the Almighty for providing it.

While the holiday has at times been divisive, it has also come to symbolize the best of the American spirit. When George Washington recognized the first Thanksgiving, he called it “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Some years later, Abraham Lincoln used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to implore for the healing of that government and its people: “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.”

Today, Thanksgiving is the rarest of American holidays, an invention that combines religious observance and civic recognition, historical hindsight with present graces. The fact that it has survived times of both feast and famine, of blessings great and small, is a testament to the American spirit. Thanksgiving Day has a history as varied, rich, and unpredictable as that of our nation. And for that we can all give thanks.

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