As Stephen Colbert says, “Thanksgiving is a magical time
of year when families across the country join together to raise
America’s obesity statistics. Personally, I love Thanksgiving
traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and
saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out
of the dining room to sit in her car.”
According to Wikipedia, Thanksgiving, perhaps
the most tradition-filled of any American holiday,
began this way:
“... the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated
by the Pilgrims (in the fall of 1621) to give
thanks to God for guiding them safely to
the New World. The first Thanksgiving feast
lasted three days, providing enough food for
53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The
feast consisted of fish (cod, eels, and bass)
and shellfish (clams, lobster, and mussels),
wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkeys),
venison, berries and fruit, vegetables (peas,
pumpkin, beetroot and possibly, wild or
cultivated onion), harvest grains (barley and
wheat), and the Three Sisters (beans, dried
Indian maize or corn, and squash). The
New England colonists were accustomed to
regularly celebrating ‘thanksgivings’—days
of prayer thanking God for blessings such
as military victory or the end of a drought.”
Historians tell us that the first thanksgiving
was actually at Berkeley Plantation near Jamestown,
Virginia, in 1519, when colonists also were
grateful for a great harvest. Others insist it was
50 years earlier, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles
came ashore with nearly a thousand sailors and
civilians to a grassy spot on the Matanzas River
in north Florida (near the future St. Augustine),
to celebrate the first Christian Mass in America.
A great meal followed, with thanks to their God.
As a folklorist, I’m often interested in the context
of human events. Besides, the what that happened,
I want to know about the who, where, when,
why, and how. Large celebrations almost always
include food. Thanksgiving is the one that’s about
food and lots of it!
For many families, traditions are almost set in
stone. The family gathers together—you go to
Grandma’s house as long as you can (because that
is home). Everybody brings food (family members’
specialties). The menu is fixed (turkey with trimmings,
mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean
casserole, other vegetables (sometimes fresh from
someone’s garden), cranberry sauce (homemade
vs. canned?), and desserts—pumpkin, pecan,
apple, or sweet potato pies. Vegetarians and
vegans may have a say in modern menus; some
families add familiar ethnic choices, like lasagna
or manicotti, kielbasa, collard greens, noodle
pudding, falafel, or egg rolls. Eating to excess is a
long-standing tradition. It’s a time of license, so
a second serving is allowed.
Some have special table linens, china, and
crystal (maybe family heirlooms), table decorations,
flowers, a seating plan, a children’s table in
large families. Someone may say grace; some hold
hands; some offer a toast.
Festivals also include a variety of customs and
rituals. Since 1924, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day
Parade has been held annually—except during
WWII—and, since the days of television, broadcast
by NBC. The first parade included animals
from the Central Park Zoo; the first large balloon
was of Felix the Cat in 1927. Santa Claus arrives
on the final float, symbolizing the beginning of
the Christmas season. After all, it’s organized by
a major retailer! At least a dozen other American
cities have big parades now as well.
The National Football League has played the
Thanksgiving Classic since the league’s beginning,
the Detroit Lions having hosted a game every
Thanksgiving since 1934; it’s also a good time
for high school games. There are decorations—
pumpkins and corn stalks, even humongous
inflatable turkeys or Pilgrims; greetings to distant
family and friends (cards, phone calls, now emails
and Facebook messages); music (hymns like “We
Gather Together” and songs by Alvin and the
Chipmunks); and entertainment (“Charlie Brown”
specials and Miracle on 34th Street on TV). Families
have their own customs like going to church,
playing touch football, running races, serving food
together in soup kitchens, and inviting strangers
without families nearby to join them for dinner.
For fun, you can do a little folklore research
about your own traditions. Take some time, together,
to answer these questions:
- Where do you go to celebrate Thanksgiving?
- Who comes? Anybody other than family?
- Who hosts?
- When do preparations begin for the dinner?
- What kind[s] of meat[s] are served?
- Is the meat fresh or frozen? How much does
it weigh? Who selects and buys it?
- What is the complete menu for the meal?
- Who prepares which dishes?
- Who helps in the host’s kitchen?
- What time of day is the meal served?
- Are there “assigned” seats? Where do children
sit? When is a child eligible to sit with
- Are there special dishes used? Glassware? Silverware?
- Are there traditional serving dishes
used for some food items?
- Are there special table decorations? House
decorations? Exterior decorations?
- Is there a special prayer offered? By whom?
How does everyone participate? Is a toast offered?
What is served? Who makes the toast?
- Who cuts the meat? Where?
- Are there rules for when eating begins? For
leaving the table when the meal is finished?
- Who cleans up? Who washes dishes?
- What are men’s roles in preparation and cleanup?
What do women do after the meal and
cleanup? Where? What do men do? Where?
- What do you do with leftovers? What do you
do with the turkey wishbone?
- What do you eat later in the day?
- Are there other traditions observed by the
family members on Thanksgiving Day? On
the rest of Thanksgiving weekend? Church?
- What have I left out? Give brief explanations
of unusual answers.
Photo: Martha Cooper
|Varick A. Chittenden
is professor emeritus
of humanities at the
State University of New
York in Canton and The
TAUNY Center project
director for Traditional
Arts in Upstate New
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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