Ah, Thanksgiving -- the time of year when we get to break our diets for a day and feast on turkey, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, and pumpkin pie.
Of course, this being Miami, most of us Latinos will probably be eating an equally ginormous feast consisting of turkey (typically marinated to taste just like pork, or lechon), a proper serving of actual lechon, Cuban bread, fried plantains, white rice and black beans, and flan for dessert.
No matter how you celebrate Thanksgiving, the main focus of this treasured holiday centers around reuniting with family and friends, and giving thanks for everything we have in our lives. But who should we be thanking for having this holiday in the first place?
Most American schoolchildren know the tale of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving on Plymouth Rock: after barely surviving a treacherous journey across the sea in search of emancipation from English rule, and suffering through an exceptionally rough winter that killed most of their crops, the Pilgrims sat down to give thanks to God and their new native American friends who taught them how to hunt and grow bountiful crops.
That first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, but it would be more than 200 years before President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as the official Thanksgiving Day. Up until then, each state had its own Thanksgiving day and traditions (if it was celebrated at all). President Lincoln’s decision to standardize the holiday was due in part to Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential writer and magazine editor.
For more than 40 years, Hale petitioned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, noting that “We have too few holidays … Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.”
Hale also helped in domesticating Thanksgiving. Many families at the time celebrated Thanksgiving in ways that would be unrecognizable to us today. Some threw rambunctious parties, others served goose or duck as their main course, with sides that saw no mention of stuffing, yams, or mashed potatoes. Dinner was served at tables with mismatched chairs and silverware, while some guests (usually children) ate on the floor.
In one of her written works, Hale described the picturesque Thanksgiving gathering of an upper class family. It was here that many of the holiday traditions we know came to be. From the plump turkey served with stuffing, and the potatoes drizzled with gravy from a gravy boat, to finishing off the feast with pumpkin pie, Hale’s description was the quintessential Thanksgiving celebration. The scene also helped re-establish the original reason behind Thanksgiving – an idea which seemed to have been lost over time. She stated, “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”
It would be another 200 years (1941) before Congress declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, but Hale’s influence can still be seen when we gather with our families and friends around the dinner table today.
So let’s give thanks this holiday, not only for the loved ones around us, but to the people who helped mark this special day in history and keep it alive for generations to come.
From our family to yours, have a very happy Thanksgiving.
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