Translator: Thanksgiving: (Almost) Everything You Know is Wrong

We lost our friend, Translator aka Dr. David Smith, seven years ago last January. He suffered from depression and his untimely death left those of us in the blog communities who knew him wondering if we could have done more to help him through his struggles. The holidays are rough on people who suffer from depression, worse for those who live alone. If you know someone like that, call them, visit them, include them. Most important, listen to them, don’t offer advice, offer to help them get help. There is help available 24/7 and it’s free. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) offers support for people in distress and their loved ones. It is confidential. There is now a toolkit for managers on social media platforms to establish best practices to prevent suicide, Support on Social Media. Just remember this one thing, all you can do is try, it is up to the individual to live.

So in remembrance of our dear friend, David, this was his post about Thanksgiving myths.

Popular Culture 20121123: Thanksgiving: (Almost) Everything You Know is Wrong
by Translator, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Yesterday the United States celebrated yet another Thanksgiving Day.  I think that Thanksgiving is a marvelous holiday, but it is hardly uniquely American.  As a matter of fact, it is hardly recent, if you can call something that supposedly began in 1621 as recent.

As a matter of fact, celebrations of the harvest at about this time of year go back millennia.  It is known that the Egyptians has such a celebration, and it seems that such festivals have occurred off and on in all agrarian civilizations since prehistory.

However, we shall confine our discussion to the US holiday (Canada has a similar one, celebrated in October due to the earlier onset of cold weather).  Almost all of our “knowledge” about this festival is imparted in children in the early years of grade school, and almost all of it is either very speculative or is created from whole cloth.

irst of all, there is only one extant, detailed account of the November 1621 feast.  It was written by one Edward Winslow, one of the founders of the Plymouth Colony, or Plymouth Plantation.  However, it is known that British colonists had similar celebrations in the Virginia Colony as early as 1610.  We do not hear about those very often.

I hesitate to use the term Pilgrims for the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation.  The literal meaning of “pilgrim” is someone who travels to a preestablished site, often religious, for the specific purpose of paying homage to something or someone.  Those to whom we apply the moniker were actually more properly called “Separatists” in that they wanted to separate from the Church of England, which they considered corrupt.  Many of them went to the continental Europe for a time after the political pressure was too great for them in England, but economic and political problems made their continued presence there untenable.

They got a boost from laissez-faire financial backers who fronted the capital necessary to outfit a ship to carry the Separatists to the New World.  That solved many political problems, as the Crown was able essentially to get rid of a thorn in its side by relegating them to the wilderness.  The capitalists who bankrolled the project were to be paid in mostly furs from America and had definite profit goals.  Finally, the Separatists would be able to practice their version of Christianity as they pleased without interference from Church of England clergy.

So they sailed the ocean blue in 1620, ostensibly heading for what is now northern Virginia.  Provisions were sort of short (the backers evidently provided the bare minimum of supplies to make the trip), and because of some other random factors made landfall much further north than they expected.  They had to make a decision as to stay there or take more time to sail south, and they opted to stay in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The climate there is radically different than the climate that they expected in Virginia, and it proved to almost be the undoing of the effort.

Actually, there was a technological failure.  Originally, two ships were to be used to carry the colonists from England to America.  The plan was to carry 121 colonists in the Mayflower and the Speedwell, with pretty much ample provisions.  Before the fleet departed England it was determined that the Speedwell was unseaworthy, so 102 colonists were loaded into the Mayflower to make the sojourn.  To accommodate almost twice the average passenger density, provisions had to be removed from the Mayflower to make room for the people.  This was a fatal decision for many of the colonists.

This also delayed departure.  They did not leave England until 16200916 (all dates are New Style).  Heavy seas were encountered, but they finally reached America.  First sight of land was made on 16201119, and anchorage was made at what is now called Provincetown Harbor on 16201121.  Think about that for a minute.  They arrived in the Cape Cod area in late November with substandard provisions, had so shelter except for the ship, at least at first, had experienced horrible privation on the journey, and now winter was coming, and fast.

By sheer luck they found some Native American deserted shelters, but betwixt the privations, the winter, and the lack of provisions illness soon struck.  As an aside, one of the reasons that they chose to stay at Plymouth was that they had pretty much drunk all of their beer, and needed to brew more, something that is not possible aboard a ship.  So much for the “Pilgrims” being like modern bluenoses!

Of the 102 colonists, only 53 as I recall made it through the winter of 1620/1621.  It is not clear what ailed them, but from contemporaneous accounts there was a lot of coughing involved.  I have two speculations as to what disease agent was responsible.  The first is that a virulent strain of influenza infected them during and immediately after the voyage.  That makes sense because they were in cramped quarters and carried both swine and fowl with them, a perfect breeding ground for creating new strains of the flu.

The second is that they succumbed to pneumonic plague.  With a 50% mortality rate, that also makes sense, and Europe was rife with Yersinia pestis in that era.  Ships are also full of rats, and rats are infested with fleas.  Without further research it is not possible to say with certainty what infected them, but it does not make sense to me that just general debilitation was the cause of the high mortality rate.  It would be extremely interesting to see if it might be possible to isolate remnants of viral or bacterial genetic material from that era and see what was the cause.

If it had not been for the Wampanoag people, many of the rest probably would have expired as well.  The relationship betwixt the colonists and the Wampanoag was not really as facile as we were led to think in grade school, and the famous Squanto (whose actual name was Tisquantum) was not even Wampanoag, but rather Patuxet, a related people.  He was able to translate betwixt the colonists because he had learnt English whilst being enslaved by one of John Smith’s men years before.  Why he chose to help the colonists is beyond my comprehension.

Now, the Wampanoag had also been severely affected by some unknown disease that reduced their population significantly in a handful of years before Plymouth.  Conventional wisdom has it that it was smallpox, brought by European explores, fishers, and settlers earlier, but that is also not known with certainty.  Recent speculation indicates that it was more likely to be leptospirosis, and that is known to be transmitted by fleas, like plague.

Although not directly related to Thanksgiving, it is of interest to note the the members of the Plymouth Colony agreed to form what is essentially a communistic society.  With the exception of truly personal items all property was communal, contributed for the greater good.  This system was in place at their first Thanksgiving and remained the norm for several more years.

In the spring of 1621 the colonists planted their fields and soon found that the grain crop would fail.  They had brought seed wheat and barley, and they just did not do very well, but those did not do well.  They knew that the Native Americans did well with maize, and took it upon themselves to steal seed corn from them!  The corn made, and they avoided starvation.  The colonists finally made restitution for the theft of the seed corn, but only after a boy was taken by the Native Americans.  He was returned, and relations improved afterwards.

Crops did well that year and the colony started getting back on its feet.  Because of the relative bounty, the colonists chose to have a fall festival to celebrate.  They did not call it Thanksgiving, for days of thanksgiving were somber affairs with fasting and prayer and this was quite the opposite.  Just before the festival, by just a couple of weeks, new colonists were delivered to Plymouth on the Fortune, with 37 new faces.  That almost doubled the population and put some strain on provisions since the Fortune was not well provisioned.  However, they went ahead with the celebration.

It is not completely clear what foods were eaten in November of 1621, but is it possible to glean some information from the few contemporaneous accounts.  It is known that “fowl” were eaten, but it is not clear exactly what kind, and it is likely that more than one type was served.  Other possibilities include duck, goose, and of course, wild turkey.

I have not been able to find any record of pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cranberries, or green bean casserole (LOL!) being served in 1621, things that are routine now.  It is likely that ham or other pork was served, but beef likely was not since cattle were too valuable for dairy at the time.  What was likely on the table was several different kinds of fish, because fishing was very good in the area, both freshwater and salt.

It is hard to say if they had beer that day, but I strongly suspect that they did.  What little barley did get harvested could be malted and used to make beer with maize providing most of the starch to make sugar for fermentation.  What little wheat was produced was probably mixed with corn for bread, and it is also likely that bread from corn alone was also served.

It is highly unlikely that sweet corn was part of the meal, because the first record of sweet corn dates from 1779, over 150 years later.  It IS likely that popcorn was eaten, however, because it dates back much further than sweet corn.  The colonists carried vegetable seeds with them, and so likely had things like spinach, peas, cabbage, and potatoes.

It is a matter of records that the Wampanoag provided venison for the feast, five of them.  Tea and coffee were almost certainly not served, as they were not popular in Britain at the time.  It is possible that native “teas” may have been served, such as sassafras, since sassafras was already an article of commerce betwixt the Virginia colonies and Britain, and sassafras grows in the area where the Plymouth Colony was.  I still bet that they had beer, and possibly whiskey as well.

After that first celebration, it was a while before another was had.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Thanksgiving did not become a big holiday in the US as a whole for over 150 years, although it was celebrated in various locations at times decided by local custom.  After the founding of the Republic, President Washington declared a Thanksgiving celebration in 1789 and in 1795, and President Adams did in 1798 and 1799.  Jefferson, always the libertarian, chose not to declare any.  Madison did, but by that time it was becoming more customary for the states to do it and Thanksgiving on the federal level sort of went away.

In 1863 President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving be celebrated nationwide on the last Thursday in November, and since then (until 1939), it was celebrated on that day, all by executive order.  The person who is chiefly responsible for this was a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.  She was editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular women’s magazine of its day, with a circulation of 150,000 in 1860.  She strongly believed that a nationwide celebration of Thanksgiving would promote national unity.  She had lobbied for this for decades, and President Lincoln finally rose to the occasion after the most devastating war in US history had started.

Presidential decrees specified the last Thursday in November until FDR declared that it should be the second-to-last Thursday in 1939 (1939 had a rare five Thursdays).  His logic was that moving up Thanksgiving would give merchants more time to sell items for Christmas, as it was considered unseemly to advertise for Christmas buying before Thanksgiving (I still consider it unseemly).  His intention was for that change to be permanent, so that the merchants would always have the extra week.

The Congress did not like that very much, but took some time to make a change.  It actually was a Republican versus Democrat spat, with the Republicans claiming that FDR was spitting in the face of Lincoln.  Imagine, partisan bickering!  Thus in both 1940 and 1941 Thanksgiving was celebrated on the third (second to last) Thursday in November.  In 1941 Congress passed a law that required Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, but revised it shortly thereafter to define Thanksgiving as the forth Thursday in that month.  FDR signed the bill into law, thereby making Thanksgiving Day a legal federal holiday the USUALLY is on the last Thursday in November but sometimes is on the second to last.  Confused?  It gets even better!

Texas, the only state to once have been a whole country, continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November until 1956.  What is it with Texas?  They are looking to secede again, but it did not work out very well for them the last time.

One tradition has been observed (except for some of the dark days during World War II) since 1924, and it is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a marketing ploy.  In 1927 the first helium balloon was introduced, one Felix the Cat, a very popular cartoon character at the time (and, as legend has, the very first television image).  Felix replaced the live animals from the zoo, and the use of balloons increased each passing year.  Originally, the balloons were let go into the air at the end of the parade (with a controlled leak so that they could be recovered later).  However, in 1932, if memory serves, one collided with an aeroplane with near disastrous results.  After that, the balloons were deflated and put into storage.  In 1942 the balloons were all given to the Department of War, the rubber in them being essential for the war effort.  The helium with which they were filled was also strategic.  In 1945 the parade was reinstated, once again with balloons.

However, there is a parade that goes back four years earlier.  What is now know as the 6ABC – Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade started as the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1920 in Philidelphia.  Gimbels was another department store powerhouse and Macy’s would not be outdone.  Gimbels was liquidated in 1986 and several other firms sponsored it and some of them went out of business as well.  Dunkin’ Donuts started its association with it last year.

Personally, I dislike the balloons as I consider them to be a waste of perfectly good helium.  I also dislike the hype and the priming of the buying binge pump.  I am not a big sport fan, so the football does not impress me, either.

My vision of Thanksgiving is for it to be a time from family and friends to come together in a spirit of mutual appreciation and affection.  My favorite memories of the holiday can be found here.

Yesterday, I cooked my grandmum’s chicken and dressing recipe and ate some of it.  During the day I watched NCIS reruns (that is really a good TeeVee show), cleaned a little house, talked with Youngest Son who called me.  The Girl was out of town, and the only contact that I had with anyone other than the call from my son was a call from a very good friend in Arkansas and a visit next door to The Girl’s family for just a minute.  It turns out that they had celebrated Thanksgiving with another daughter and her family, and The Girl’s mum had brought back a huge feast for me.  I took them some dressing and thanked them for the food.  I ate turkey, ham, sweet potato casserole, some strange (to me) green bean, onion, and corn casserole (strange in that I had never had it before, but it was pretty good), a deviled egg, and some cookies that they sent me, along with more of the dressing that I cooked.  By the way, unless I am unavailable, I shall publish the recipe for the dressing tomorrow night in the comments on Whats for Dinner? on Kos which opens at 7:30 PM Eastern.

For some reason, it is more difficult for me to spend Thanksgiving alone than Christmas.  I have no explanation for that, but perhaps it is because I always thought that Thanksgiving was more family oriented whilst Christmas was more materialistic.  I am thankful for the telephone calls from my son and friend, and the gift of food from my neighbors, but just being with family and friends would have been better.  However, I am the one who made the bed in which I now must sleep.  I am not bitter, please do not get me wrong, just a little melancholic that I have made some really bad choices that have resulted in being more isolated that I would like to have been.  I do resolve to try to resolve this isolation before the next one comes.

Please do not get me wrong; I have much for which to be thankful and am not complaining.  I appreciate the acts of kindness that people showed to my yesterday.  I am thankful that all three of my children are well and successful, and that the former Mrs. Translator is recovering nicely from her knee replacement earlier this year.  I am thankful the Central Son married a mate who has been very good for him, and I am thankful that Eldest Son and his mate are very happy together.  I am thankful that I am in good health, despite my best efforts otherwise.  Yes, I still smoke cigarettes.  I am thankful that I have a place to live, and that I am surrounded by neighbors who are nothing but nice to me.  I am thankful that I have friends who accept this flawed person for who I am.  I am thankful that I have many, many wonderful readers of my blogs who give encouragement to me, and that a few of them have become personal friends.  I am thankful that I live in the most interesting period of all history.  I am thankful that the electorate had the good sense to reject Romney and increase the Democratic representation in both houses of the Congress, and especially thankful that the Senate remains in Democratic control.  I am thankful that I can eat whatever I want, both from economic and from health aspects.  I am thankful to be a citizen of the greatest Nation ever conceived.  I am thankful that this Nation is becoming more, not less, accepting of people of good intent who may have different orientations (not limited to sexual preferences).  I am thankful that the best days of this Nation are before us, not behind us.

That about does it for tonight.  I shall be around, on and off, for comments.  Just after publishing I plan to pop next door to visit with The Girl’s parents for a few minutes, but I shall return pretty quickly.  It is just important to keep those relationships fresh, and nothing can replace face time for that.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

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