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Don’t “Talk Turkey,” Give Thanks

Oh how I loathe hearing the words….”Happy Turkey Day.”

I loathe the expression not only because I know that turkeys are ready, willing and able to be loving pets for those lucky enough to be able to house them, but also because it  demonstrates how far Americans have distanced themselves from what Thanksgiving is really all about!   “Happy Turkey Day” ranks about as high with me as “Merry Xmas!”  Do your homework, please!  In fact, turkeys weren’t even on the menu during the Fall of 1621 when 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 English colonists (the latter mostly women and children) for a Three-Day Harvest Feast.  A Feast far from the reality of what Americans now call and celebrate “Thanksgiving.”

There is very little history available to clarify the origins of the original day of Thanks.  According to Elizabeth Armstrong in the Christian Science Monitor/November 27, 2002, almost all we know or think we know about Thanksgiving is a myth.  Everything historians know about The Harvest Feast of 1621 comes from two passages, one written by Edward Winslow in December 1621, and from a book written by William Bradford in 1641.  Bradford’s book however, was stolen by the British during the Revolutionary War, therefore providing little to the Holiday’s shaping of tradition as the book was lost for nearly 100 years.

Winslow’s account never mentioned wild turkey, but more likely “large amounts of fowl brought back by 4 hunters” were seasonal waterfowl such as duck or geese.  Other “meal” possibilities of the time according to Winslow’s account included lobsters, mussels, white and red grapes, red and black plums, flint corn and “sallet herbs.”  No pumpkin pies, sweet or white potatoes either.  (Sorry!)

There was no conversation between the Wampanoag and Colonists, save for one interpreter named Santo, a member of the Patuxet tribe who knew English because he had encounters with earlier settlers.  Besides meals, there was recreation and entertainment.  (Perhaps the first multi-cultural experience in the New Land?)  There is no certainty of the Wampanoag and Colonists meeting regularly to share food or not.  They did not go-about to “start” a Thanksgiving tradition.  Interestingly, for the Wampanoag, “thanksgiving” was an everyday activity!  In fact, as a native people, they would offer a prayer of acknowledgement any time they went hunting, fishing or picked a plant to eat.  The Colonists likely wanted to give thanks after surviving 3 brutal years trying to survive, and finally had a harvest to be proud and thankful for.  They did not have it easy.

Earl Mills Sr. is a retired high school teacher and athletic director.

He has written two books and owns a resteraunt.  He is also known as Flying Eagle, chief of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.  He asserts that it is not just the eating, but the gathering together, preparing and thanking that matters.  He says, “The role of food is important, but its gotten to the point where we become gluttons…We could spend a lot more time really thinking about what’s going on in our world and giving more thanks.”  Americans have and had much to learn from the Wampanoag.  Perhaps that was done in 1621, but is it happening today?  Do we really “give thanks” on Thanksgiving let alone everyday of the year?  We gather together and prepare food, but do we truly express Thanks to our God?  Nature?  ShopRite? Grandma?  Anyone???

Our “idea” of Thanksgiving has drifted so far from the truth of its origins, its saddening.

Like most American Holidays, (Veterans’ Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July and even Christmas), Thanksgiving has fallen into the abyss of food (lots of food), drink, “time off,” and that ever-famous “night before Thanksgiving” which is the most beneficial for bars, DUI arrests, and airlines than any other day of the year!  Society’s consciousness of meaning and appreciation, for the most part, are lost in the glamour, commitments, social-pressure and media-fueled beliefs of what this holiday (as well as the others) is “supposed” to mean and be.

So where did our concept of Thanksgiving come from?

Abraham Lincoln named Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863.  Long after the original Harvest Feast and by petition from a Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book.  In 1854 Bradford’s book about the Plymouth Plantation resurfaced, and Hale relished the section that wrote about that first Feast.  She “decorated” the concept with 19th Century recipes and ideas, as she refused to let the significance of the first “thanksgiving” disappear into oblivion.  (Here is where turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie “fit into” the “holiday.”)   But, has it already?  Flying Eagle believes it has, and also believes we Americans should truly practice giving thanks on this day, as well as every day of the year.

Hale’s petition to Lincoln said, “Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation, when the noise and turmoil of worldliness may be exchanged for the length of the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”  This all sounds very “Martha Stewartish” but in the 19th and 20th centuries, Thanksgiving was more a tool to Americanize the various cultures coming to our shores than it was a true day of thanks.   Hale, however, left out the mention of who the majority of the new world was back in 1621, the Wampanoag.  Thanksgiving today has little to do with the binding and convergence of two vastly different cultures.  We pay the Wampanoags little respect by including “some Indians” in our erroneous beliefs about the birth of the holiday, sitting around the table with the Pilgrims.  In fact, there were far more “Indians” there than settlers!  It was their land first, and evident in the following passage of history.

Consider one piece of true recollection of the first event from Edward Winslow’s letter (mentioned previously):  “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as as much fowl as, with little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time, among othjer Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit (chief of the Wampanoag), with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed the Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”

There is a vast gap between Hale’s petition of what a contemporary trend-setter of the time’s vision was to become known as “Thanksgiving” and the actual account of Winslow’s report which gave first-hand detail of the true beauty of what Thanksgiving was.  Far far away from “Turkey Day” friends!  Just some Thanksgiving “food for thought!”

Be happy, be thankful, laugh more and worry less, and have a Happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!


Leo Battenhausen, MSW, LCADC, is a contributing blogger for JenningsWire.