We can’t help but wonder how different this particular holiday would be observed if Ben Franklin’s view had prevailed. When it came to choosing which of our feathered friends would serve as the national bird of the new nation, Franklin thought it should be the turkey instead of the bald eagle. When a vote was taken by our Founding Fathers, the eagle won out, but by only a single vote.
Thus, the noble bald eagle rose to a place of honor as a symbol of America while the turkey became the centerpiece of family feasts on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But if the turkey were our national bird, would we eat it on holidays? We doubt it. Nor would we dine on the bald eagle, a bird of prey that is difficult to hunt and produces less meat than the turkey, with most of it no doubt being dark meat.
So instead of serving turkey for Thanksgiving, we suspect ham would adorn Thanksgiving tables, or for those who cannot eat pork for religious reasons, a goose would be served for the holiday feast. In fact, many Americans already serve ham for Thanksgiving while far fewer dine on a roasted goose. But more turkey is served in America on the fourth Thursday in November than on any other day of the year.
Enough about turkeys. Thanksgiving is a peculiarly American holiday that is wrapped up in legend and myth that don’t bear close historical examination. True, the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down to a peaceable feast in 1621, but it was a rare feel-good moment. Just a few decades later, wars that were bloody and savage broke out and would continue on and off across North America for the next two and a half centuries.
Nevertheless, retired Morehead State University history professor John Kleber calls the Thanksgiving story a “good myth.” More than how it really was, that peaceable first Thanksgiving is the way we wished it had been, and Kleber says there is nothing wrong with that. The myth is better and more uplifting than the truth.
While the days of Thanksgiving were regularly proclaimed in the early days of the colonies and later the infant United States, Abraham Lincoln was the first president to declare Thanksgiving as a national holiday. In fact, one of the most meaningful Thanksgivings was in November 1863. Secretary of State William Seward was the first to speak that day in Gettysburg, Pa., the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the still raging Civil War.
Seward spoke at great length imploring the Almighty “to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” But Seward’s words were soon overshadowed by an eloquent but brief talk by President Lincoln that we now know as the Gettysburg Address. Many of us can recite that address — or at least most of it — from memory.
Well, government “of the people, by the people and for the people” did survive, but Thanksgiving has changed and continues to change.
While we used to think of Thanksgiving as the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, that no longer is true. Christmas decorations in the stores have been up since Halloween, and it has gotten so Thanksgiving has almost been lost among the sparkling Christmas lights and holiday sales.
Increasingly, stores are open on Thanksgiving Day. Then comes Black Friday, when retailers hope to turn red. Early Wednesday morning shoppers at a local supermarket were quickly grabbing copies of this newspaper, not because they were particularly interested in the news of the day, but because they wanted an early look at the ads for Black Friday sales. On Dec. 1, we will observe Cyber Monday, which has become a special sales day for techno geeks.
While Thanksgiving is not a holiday ordained by the church, the Bible includes numerous passages imploring believers to give thanks. Regardless of one’s faith or lack of it, that is why this holiday was created, and we should all take time today to give thanks for our blessings. The holiday may have evolved and, one hopes, we have, too. Give thanks, be careful and have a marvelous Thanksgiving.