Thanksgiving: what's it all about?

It celebrates America’s heritage, but some traditions are less than appetising, says Dave Kenny

THANKSGIVING. It’s that day of the year when Americans leave their shopping malls and stuff their faces full of turkey. It’s Christmas without the trees, or, in Ireland’s case, the mindless violence and projectile vomiting.

In 1863, after the North’s victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving.

The person most responsible for making it a holiday was writer, Sarah Josepha Hale. She persuaded Lincoln that it could unite the nation. Sarah’s legacy, however, is not Thanksgiving. It’s a poem. She wrote ‘Mary Had a little Lamb’. Mary also had a little turkey, a little cranberry sauce …

Thanksgiving facts

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird of the United States — as opposed to the majestic bald eagle that adorns its official seal. The eagle is the symbol of freedom. The turkey is the symbol of indigestion. The national motto of the US could have been ‘gobble, gobble’.

President has an eye for the birds

Almost 300m turkeys are sold each year for Thanksgiving. Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live bird, and two dressed ones, to the president (Turkeys in dresses?). The president ‘pardons’ the live bird, which lives happily ever after on a farm. He eats the transvestite birds. The best way to catch a turkey is to creep up on it at night and shout ‘boo’. Turkeys have poor night vision and are prone to heart attacks. Don’t believe me? The US Air Force discovered this when testing the sound barrier and nearby turkeys dropped dead.

Plymouth rocks, man

Thanksgiving is traced to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, by immigrant ‘Pilgrims’ from the Mayflower ship. You thought these ‘Pilgrims’ were Puritans, didn’t you? The killjoys who were as much fun as having your toes clipped by Stevie Wonder with a garden shears? Wrong. They were Separatists (English Dissenters).

Enough religion, time for … Din dins

Despite their unpopularity at home, the local ‘injuns’ — the Wampanoag — were pleased to see the Pilgrims. A chap called Squanto taught them how to catch eel and grow corn. The Wampanoag donated food to them. As thanks for helping with the first harvest, the ‘injuns’ were asked around for the first Thanksgiving feast. They were the houseguests from hell. The Pilgrims wanted to put their feet up after dinner, with a box of Quality Street, but the ‘injuns’ stayed for three days. Mind you, the Pilgrims couldn’t ask them to leave. They had bows and arrows, after all.

La Fiesta del Accion de Gracias

If you want to annoy a Yank, tell him that Thanksgiving isn’t American. Scholars at the University of Florida say that the earliest Thanksgiving service was celebrated by the Spanish, on Sept 8, 1565, in Saint Augustine, Florida.

No thanks love, I’ve a headache (1)

Due to white meat’s popularity, turkey breasts have grown in size. Now they get in the way of the male’s ‘appendage’ during mating. So, apart from being destined for the table, the birds don’t even enjoy their short sex lives. Most of them are impregnated by artificial insemination. It’s a family newspaper, so we’ll forgo all the ‘gobble’ jokes. Here’s a clean turkey joke from Arnold Schwarzenegger, instead: “I love Thanksgiving. It’s the only time in LA that you get to see real breasts.”

I’ve a headache (2)

If you’re ever invited to Thanksgiving dinner and have a sore head the following day, count yourself lucky. The phrase ‘turkey shoot’ comes from putting turkeys behind logs with their heads exposed — and then blowing them off with rifle shots. Charming.

Poxy explorers

Before the Pilgrims arrived, Plymouth had been the site of a thriving Pawtuxet village. In return for hospitality, the new explorers gave the locals a selection box of plagues and poxes — which devastated the native population. An estimated 72,000 to 90,000 people lived in southern New England before contact with Europeans. One hundred years later, their numbers were reduced by 80%.

Thanks, but no thanks

Understandably, most Native Americans aren’t big fans of the celebration. In 1969, hundreds of them travelled to Alcatraz, on Thanksgiving, to celebrate the occupation of Alcatraz. It lasted until 1971.

We’re having the neighbours for dinner

Considering how difficult life was for the Pilgrim fathers, it’s surprising that turkey is synonymous with the annual feast. Human brains might be more appropriate. The United American Indians of New England believe there is a good reason for Thanksgiving not being associated with the first colony at Jamestown — the settlers turned to cannibalism to survive.

The food

The first feast consisted of lobster, rabbit, chicken, fish, deer, squashes, beans, nuts, veggies and cheese. Now, celebrants eat roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn and pumpkin pie.

US farmers produced 768m pounds of cranberries in 2012. Many people believe cranberries can cure urinary infections. They can’t. They were, however, used by Native Americans to cure arrow wounds.

Not plane sailing

Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the US. The movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), is based around Steve Martin and John Candy’s attempts to get home for the celebrations.

Best Thanksgiving quote ever

The final word about the holiday goes to comedian Jon Stewart … “This year I celebrated Thanksgiving in the old-fashioned way. I invited everyone from my neighbourhood over. We had an enormous feast. Then, I killed them and took their land.”


Tis the season for sequins and excess, but minimalists can stick to their style guns in the season’s next level neutrals. From low-key glitz that’s perfect for party wear to the wardrobe heroes with trans-seasonal appeal, slide into neutral for maximum style with minimal effort. Carolyn Moore reports.Low-key glitz for minimalists with this season's neutrals

How to plump, hydrate and get rid of spots fast before your Christmas party.The Skin Nerd: Getting your quick fix for the festive party season

Irish photographer Seamus Murphy brought music star PJ Harvey to Afghanistan to film part of their documentary, writes Esther McCarthy.Headlong into the war zone in new documentary

Kya deLongchamps shows us how to champion our environmentWinter greens: How to champion our environment this season

More From The Irish Examiner