The facts around Thanksgiving Day

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The facts around Thanksgiving Day

So it’s Thanksgiving,

The Season’s begun.

Another feast over.

(But shopping’s not done!)


With apologies to John Lennon, happy Thanksgiving Day to everyone, regardless of nationality.

As the above jingle insinuates, tomorrow is Black Friday, where American commercial crassness starts its finest yearend drive to achieve annual retail targets. But, of course, there is much more to Thanksgiving. I won’t dwell on the well-known traditions and histories. But I would like to share some relevant trivia I recently stumbled across that explains a lot about this quintessential American holiday, as well as about the United States.

While the reader undoubtedly knows the Thanksgiving tradition goes back hundreds of years, it was only about 150 years ago when the day became an official U.S. holiday. That is primarily due to the efforts of the very same woman who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale. She campaigned for about 20 years to make the day a national holiday.

Finally, during the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln agreed to make it an official holiday. He thought a national holiday of thanks would help heal the nation’s divide following the war. In any event, Lincoln’s reason for making Thanksgiving a holiday leads us to the origin of Thanksgivings in general.

We usually think of Thanksgiving being an event celebrated once a year, like Chuseok, as annual harvest festivals. But in the past, Europeans and Americans would hold special, sometimes multiple, Thanksgivings within a year, following traumatic events. Usually a Thanksgiving would be held after passing or surviving a difficult time, such as a plague, a difficult journey or a war.

In less extreme times, it was considered religiously prudent to simply give thanks for a good harvest at least once a year. And sometimes, a Thanksgiving would be held after a very positive event.

That is why it was only natural for America’s early settlers to have a three-day Thanksgiving after barely surviving their first hard winter in the New World, and to give thanks for the help they received from the Native Americans for a good harvest. (I’m sure many Native American families have had second thoughts about that event, given the following history.)

Later, as survival and good harvests became routine, Americans settled on having Thanksgiving just once a year, but at arbitrary times in the late autumn, varying from state to state and even community to community, until Thanksgiving Day was fixed as a national holiday.

Since Lincoln’s time, Thanksgiving was generally celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But following 1939, when the last Thursday fell on the last day of the month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation that moved the holiday to the second to last Thursday of November.

He was concerned that the feast day fell too close to Christmas, thereby shortening the year-end shopping season and dampening the nation’s economic recovery. As a result, 32 states moved the holiday up a week, but 16 states refused to budge. So it was up to the U.S. Congress, in 1941, to authorized that the holiday to be consistently observed on the fourth Thursday of November, just in case of those years when November has five Thursdays.

Today, a full 91 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That comes to roughly 280 million turkeys consumed each Thanksgiving. But how much turkey is that? If all those turkeys were weighed together (an interesting mental image), the scale would register more than 3.175 billion kilograms.

So, why is this bird called the turkey? There is a country with that name, right? Yes - and that has something to do with the origin of this American bird’s name. Early in the 16th century, when the turkey was widely introduced to Europe, there was already another common, imported bird, the guinea fowl. That bird resembled the American bird, but it had been introduced earlier from Madagascar by Ottoman Empire merchants who were called “Turkey merchants.”

Over time, and before the arrival of the American bird, the guinea fowl became to be known as the “turkey fowl.” After the similar American bird became widely accepted by the Europeans, many people thought the American bird to be a species of the turkey fowl.

Eventually English speakers came to call the American bird as the “turkey fowl” - and, finally, the name was shortened to simply “turkey.” The Americans, too, later adopted the name. So the Americans introduced the bird to the rest of the world, but it was the English who misnamed it - similar to how Columbus confused the Native Americans to be Indians.

Returning to where we began with mention of Black Friday, historians reckon that America’s holiday shopping season start has been seen as such, since the day following Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, when the department store reopened for business on Friday. The name “Black Friday” refers to how retailers’ accounting records moved from the red ink, indicating business losses, to the “black” as Christmas shoppers made it possible for stores to record profitable years.

So this is to wish those readers planning tonight’s feast to have a good one. But as the traditional admonish goes, “eat hardy - but not too much!”

*The author is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and a senior adviser to the IPG Legal group.

By Tom Coyner

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