Strait On: The history of Thanksgiving here and around the world

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Thanksgiving Day parades have become tradition just like turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

Time changes. The where, what and why of holidays and the way we celebrate them also change. For instance, our Thanksgiving Day has basically been celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, come hell or high water. Now it is situated so the country can take an extra day off.
The Friday after Thanksgiving used to be the day we recovered from eating too much. Today that Friday is called, “Black Friday,” and folks rush out to the stores for a heads-up on Christmas shopping. Black is hardly the color, unless you leave the store with a blackened eye for taking the last of the most coveted gift of the season. Stores are lit to the roof with bright blinking lights, toys abound and we push shove and knock people over to get our hands on that last television that is 50 percent off for that day only. We are like herds of bison racing across the prairies, destroying everything in sight. Racing to where? The checkout line.
We have been led to believe that nobody in the world has anything to be thankful for except us. It’s a day to celebrate the Pilgrims, the Native Americans and Plymouth Rock. Time out. Thanksgiving is a holiday that is celebrated around the world for various reasons.
According to Wikipedia more than a dozen other countries celebrate a “Thanksgiving Day.” Let’s take a look.
Australia: American sailing ships brought the holiday to Norfolk Island where it is celebrated on the last Wednesday in November, which is either the day before or six days after our observance.
United Kingdom: Unlike the United States, there is no set date. Traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the harvest moon that occurs nearest to the autumnal equinox, it has roots that go back to the Saxons where wheat and other grains were offered to fertility gods. At reaping time communities came together to celebrate a harvest supper. When Christianity came to the country the observance was continued. Today it is celebrated in churches and schools in late September into early October where food is collected and donated to local charities.
Japan: Labor Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in Japan, celebrated Nov. 23. Again, American influence during the occupation, following World War II, encouraged the holiday, although it has roots in an ancient Shinto ceremony.
Judaism: Reform Judaism does not ban Thanksgiving because it is considered secular, not religious.
Saint Lucia: Celebrated on the first Monday in October, without any known foundation.
Philippines: The Philippines became an American territory following the Spanish/American War of 1898 and continued until 1946 when they were granted autonomy at the end of World War II. During the Japanese occupation, both Filipinos and Americans living there secretly celebrated Thanksgiving; it was also secretly observed during the years of martial law. It returned during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. After his ouster in 1986, the tradition disappeared. Since 2001 it was revived among workers employed by American employers.
The Netherlands: A non-denominational Thanksgiving Day service is held each year on the morning of the American Thanksgiving Day at a Gothic church in Leiden, noting the hospitality the Pilgrims received in Leiden on their way to the New World. Orthodox protestant churches celebrate on the first Wednesday in November, although it is not a public holiday.
Liberia: Thanksgiving is celebrated on the first Thursday in November, celebrating the 1820 colonization of freed black slaves from the United States.
Grenada: Celebrated on October 25, this holiday has no relationship to the Canadian and American traditions, although celebrated during the same time period. It actually marks the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of the island in 1983.
Canada: Celebrated on the second Monday in October to give thanks to the end of harvesting. There are some religious ceremonies but mostly this is a secular event and is a statutory holiday throughout the country with the exception of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Wikimedia Commons
Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing turkey and football player.

China: In China they celebrate an “August Moon” festival, falling on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It is traditionally believed that when the moon is brightest, lovers speak out their hearts to each other, and that women are similes to warm and compassionate virtues and own the gift of fertility, just as mother earth.
Brazil: Their celebration is quite like the American Thanksgiving. On a visit to the United States, a Brazilian ambassador was taken by the humbleness of our Thanksgiving and took it back to his country where it is celebrated as an expression of gratitude to God for an enormous harvest.
North and South Korea: Their Thanksgiving, known as “Chuseok,” begins on the 14th night of August and continues for three days. Prior to the evening, meal the family gathers in moonlight in remembrance of ancestors and forefathers. Children are garbed in ceremonial dress, dancing a circle with the inherent desire of being blessed.
United States of America: Now to the Thanksgiving roots we so delightfully celebrate as though our world was discovered intact, with Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue sitting down there on Manhattan Island waiting for our business. That’s nowhere near what happened and all the happy greetings at Plymouth Rock did not exactly happen that way.
The Native Americans were not down at the docks welcoming the straggling mess of civilization that came ashore near Plymouth Rock. Most were suffering from exposure, malnutrition, scurvy and numerous other contagious diseases. Only half of the original crew that boarded the Mayflower in England actually reached the New World. The rest died at sea where their remains were fed to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
The passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower were mostly members of the English Separatist Church who took shelter in the Netherlands. Their adventure to the New World was designed as an escape to a better future. However, they were destined from the beginning to encounter failure. The weather was a disaster in the making; the fact that anyone survived was a miracle.
One Abenaki Indian greeted them in English (much to the surprise of everyone involved). He then departed, returning several days later with Squanto, from the Pawtuxet Tribe, who was later sold in slavery to an English sea captain. Despite that, Squanto saved the straggling adventurers.
Despite his own situation, Squanto became a teacher to these strangers from across the water. He taught them much about their new habitat: how to cultivate corn, make syrup from the sap of maple trees, fish the Massachusetts rivers, and how to avoid poisonous plants.
Squanto became a mediator between the tribes and the new visitors, uniting them with the Native Americans. Of the various tribes in the area, the Wampanoag were one of only a few who kept a peaceful relationship with us over the years.
So how did our Thanksgiving come about? We probably learned the basics in kindergarten, but today only have a general idea.
In November 1621, the colonial Gov. William Bradford organized a feast to thank the Native Americans for their kindness. A total of 91 Native Americans joined them for the occasion.
We know, from historical documents, that it was a three-day celebration that featured fowl (probably wild turkeys) and five deer that were brought to the feast by the Wampanoags.

Wikimedia Commons
Jesa, a type of Korean ancestor veneration held on Chuseok (Korean mid-autumn festival).

They were celebrating the first year of survival with their benefactors. There is no documentation of pumpkin pie or cranberries – both of which are now a necessary part of the feast.
Thanksgiving in America became an irregular event, randomly celebrated. It was not until Franklin Roosevelt became president that it became a national holiday. He declared that it should be celebrated one week prior to the next to last Thursday in November, which caused an uproar in political circles. In 1941, it was sanctioned as a legal holiday by Congress to be a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. And so it has celebrated every year afterward.
I have also come upon something else about Thanksgiving, generally not known. We generally believe that the first Thanksgiving was that one celebrated by the Mayflower survivors. Not true.
In 1865 a Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on Sept. 8, 1865 in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest permanent settlement in North America, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men shared a feast with the natives, more than 50 years before Plymouth Rock.
At the beginning of this story I wrote of changes. Over the years our traditional Thanksgiving has taken on additional reasons for existing. Today, it isn’t just turkey and all the trimmings. Charity and giving has emerged as a cause. Football and parades are now focused on pretty much everything but the Mayflower crowd. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with all its Disney balloon characters and other commercial floats, has become a prelude to Christmas shopping. It has become a celebration to commercialism, like every other American holiday, instead of what happened to the Mayflower passengers. Yes, time changes things. Just sayin’.

rustystrait@gmail.com

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