The many perils of Thanksgiving, past and present

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Like many Americans of a similar height-to-weight ratio, I particularly enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday. Yes, I love to eat, but I also enjoy the peace and tranquility of the Thanksgiving meal.

All the family squabbling and acrimony are set aside while everyone stuffs their faces, and immediately afterward, most people take a nap. The centerpiece of this serenity is the turkey, a bird that has become such an icon of the festivity that some people are tempted to refer to Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day.”

This intense focus on the poor bird has a few people worried, however. My pal Jimmy, for example, has shared his concern that turkeys endure terrible hardships on Thanksgiving.

He is, of course, referring to the turkeys that were pardoned Wednesday by President Barack Obama.

The tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving began sometime in the past, probably in 1989 with President George H.W. Bush. Like many traditions, the exact origins are one of the things that keeps historians in grant funding.

This year the pardoned turkeys will be shipped off to Mount Vernon, the former Virginia home of George Washington, where because of health concerns related to obesity, they will be put on a regimen of diet and exercise.

“Imagine that you have just retired,” Jimmy told me. “Then they ship you off to the set of the ‘The Biggest Loser,’ where Jillian Michaels will yell at you and feed you caffeine pills until you die.”

I wasn’t aware Jimmy even knew who Jillian Michaels was, but he raised a valid point. My friend asserted that, if given a choice, he would rather be dinner. “At least I would die with the knowledge that A.) I have brought joy and calories to some poor American family and B.) I would never have to diet or exercise again.”

I appreciate, and even share, Jimmy’s views about exercise and diet. However, I disagree that it is somehow “un-American” to offer up a sacrificial bird on Thanksgiving. It is a holiday, after all, that is based on suffering. In some cases extreme suffering (like the year Grandma decided to serve bean dip before dinner.)

For example, many Americans believe that the first Thanksgiving began when the Pilgrims, also known as “those guys with the funny hats,” shared a meal with Native Americans in about 1691.

But, before the confab could take place, half the Pilgrims starved to death. Governor William Bradford wrote in his journal, this was “a real bummer.”

But it wasn’t the only “first” Thanksgiving. In 1578 by Martin Frobisher held a thanksgiving celebration after crossing the North Atlantic from England to Baffin Island. Despite the fact that he was stuck in Canada, Frobisher was pretty excited to be alive.

Other historians, in an effort to cash in on some of the Thanksgiving research funding, point out that this may explain the Canadian holiday but doesn’t count for us Yanks.

Instead, they propose a celebration held by Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate in 1598, when his band spent nearly two months crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. (Note: this is where we get the expression, “Aieee, Chihuahua!)

Not until 1789 did American’s celebrate Thanksgiving as a nation.

In October of that year, George Washington wrote, “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be — That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks ... in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”

A modern reader, accustomed to modern ideas, immediately notices what a windbag old Washington was. The guy could go on and on and on. But still, he knew a good holiday when he saw one.

Unfortunately, Washington’s proclamation only applied to November 26, 1789.

After that, each state and locality was free to hold Thanksgiving whenever they felt like it. This made it very hard to schedule football games. President Abraham Lincoln settled the issue in 1863.

It was a good year for proclamations, though a tough year for the nation. The Civil War was in its third year, and despite some major Union victories, Lincoln was swapping out generals like Carrie Underwood changes dresses at an award show.

It was a year that saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the Battle of Gettysburg.

But Lincoln, fresh off his Emancipation Proclamation that promised freedom to more than 3 million slaves, followed up with a Thanksgiving Proclamation establishing the national holiday: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity ... order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict.”

Lincoln points out that the war-torn nation had steadily increased its population, trade, shipping and agriculture despite of the conflict.

“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” Lincoln wrote.

Lincoln probably seemed like an optimistic fruitcake to a number of American citizens, who, like anyone stuck in the middle of intense suffering, were having a hard time feeling especially grateful.

As horrible as the Civil War was, it is now hard to imagine a United States of America without it. When would slavery have ended in North America? What would the Civil Rights movement have looked like? Would the northern states have been annexed by Canada as a result of an escalation of the Pig War?

Yes, suffering and misery is vital to the proper celebration of Thanksgiving in America. It is one of the main reasons that millions of Americans eat themselves into a stupor, and why we watch a sport where very large men run around in the cold and bash into each other.

If putting a pair of turkeys in boot camp will remind this country of the obstacles our ancestors surmounted by the grace of God, so be it, I say.

Personally, I’m planning to celebrate by standing outside in the cold for several hours while my relatives prepare dinner. I could stay inside and play board games, but I don’t want to overdo this suffering thing.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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