Jennifer Moody wrote a nice historical reminder of the myths and meaning of Thanksgiving in a chapter of "The Business of Holidays."
She says the Wamponoags actually provided most of the first feast, since their hosts, the Pilgrims, did not have enough food for everyone.
"The hero of the day, and the events leading up to it, was Squanto, a Wampanoag who took pity on the Pilgrims, living in destitution in a deserted Indian village, and showed them how to survive in the new land. But it remains historical fact that in 1621, at Plymouth on Massachusetts Bay, fifty Pilgrim settlers joined with at least ninety native guests in a three-day feast -- the "First Thanksgiving." "
The harvest celebration did not occur again for more than 150 years -- our first national Thanksgiving was declared by the Continental Congress in 1777, to celebrate a victory over British general John Burgoyne. Congress designated the third Thursday of December as a day of "thanksgiving and praise."
In October 1863, Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an official national (and federal) holiday to commemorate Union victories during the Civil War. He set the date as the last Thursday in November.
It was not until 1931, when President Hoover issued his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, that Pilgrims and the harvest festival were mentioned again.
Even though it seems like every year the nation's big retailers begin pushing the holiday shopping season forward, in fact back in 1939 FDR announced he was moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, in hopes that the extra week would lead to increased sales for merchants during the holiday season, and give an extra boost to the economy.
FDR's move was met with great opposition from the general public, some of whom dubbed the day "Franksgiving." (Mind you, decades before concerns were raised about genetically engineered-food). Especially opposed to the change were people and organizations whose schedules depended on a single date for Thanksgiving -- including schools, turkey growers and calendar makers.
As a quiet admission that they'd made a mistake, Roosevelt and Congress reinstated the traditional date in 1941, where it has remained ever since.
Of course, activists continue to brand “Black Friday" (the day after Thanksgiving, i.e. the start of the Christmas holiday season, when retailers go from being "in the red" to "in the black") the nation's leading shopping holiday (or should we spell that "holy-day" in a culture of mass consumption?) "Fur-Free Friday" (animal rights groups) and "Buy Nothing Day" (Ad-busters). Both of which seem to really rile up shoppers who don't wanna be reminded about the gulags, sweatshops and credit card debt that hide behind the gluttonous affluenza of suburbia.
Since 1970 the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) have staged demonstrations on Thanksgiving in Plymouth, renaming the day a "National Day of Mourning."
Not all the protests have been staged by the continent's original occupants or today's tree huggers. When Macy's started its parade in 1924, certain patriotic groups took offense that they would put such a crass commercial show on a "national and essentially religious holiday."
Nevertheless, Macy's marched on. In 1948, the parade was televised for the first time. And in 2002, nearly 2.5 million people lined the 2.5 mile parade route in NYC as nearly 60 million more watched on TV. That's a lot of hullabaloo for a bunch of "falloons" (what Macy's calls their hybrid "balloon-floats").
Of course, for most Americans Thanksgiving remains a home-centered day of leisure. And beers in front of the flat screen are the thing to be thankful for. But health-conscious Americans will tell you that the NFL is not the only sports group that enjoys the day. "Turkey trots" -- footraces have sprouted up in health-conscious communities -- some serve as fundraisers for anti-hunger charities. That's one way to work up an appetite. Afterwards, you can gobble until you wobble.
Keep in mind that It's unlikely that turkey was eaten by the first Thanksgiving feasters. According to Moody, it's more probably that they dined on fish, goose and venison. (The demand for turkey was first stoked by poultry producers in the late 1800s.) And who knows -- if (when?) the bird flu crosses the ocean, maybe Perdue and Tyson will have to sell us all on Tofurkey. And if the Turkey suddenly becomes as rare as the bald eagle, maybe we'll be ready to take Ben Franklin's suggestion seriously about making it our national bird.
Alas, most Americans look like they themselves could use a little trimming. The National Turkey Federation reports that U.S. consumption of turkey grew from 8.7 pounds/person to 17.7 pounds/person between 1974 and 2002. No wonder there are increased complaints about the airlines squishing the seats closer together..
Maybe we should be thankful that they've now started to charge for those on-board meals.