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Thanksgiving: a time for reflection, turkey, football

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2007-11-22

When you ask Flyer and Fryer what they think of Thanksgiving, they’ll tell you it’s a great holiday, so long as you’re not a turkey.

They’re both turkeys, but survived the 2006 Thanksgiving holiday to tell their story, thanks to a presidential pardon from George W. Bush. An American tradition to the harvest holiday that spans millenniums, freeing a couple plump turkeys from the ignominious fate of becoming a Thanksgiving feast has captured the fancy of Americans. The general public backs the pardons, and even gets to give the freed birds names. In 2005 they chose Marshmallow and Yam, while Biscuit and Gravy avoided the chef’s axe.

Nonetheless, an estimated 289 million turkeys became holiday dinner in America last year, fueling the American-style festivities that pay homage to the first settlers in North America, the pilgrims in the early 1600’s. A group of pilgrims fled their native England in 1609 to escape religious prosecution, first going to Holland before migrating to the New World. Those hearty Englishmen and their families agreed to work for financial backers seven years in exchange for the boat ride to what is now the United States.

The 44 Pilgrims, who referred to themselves as ‘Saints’, and 66 others sailed aboard the vessel Mayflower, arriving in North America in November 1620, 65 days after leaving Plymouth, England. Harsh conditions made their first cold, snowy winter a nightmare, while the Spring brought new light to their adventure. When Samoset, an Abnaki Indian who learned English from fishing boat captains sailing the east coast, arrived at their settlement, luck began changing. Samoset taught them to hunt and fish, and to live off the land.

The fall brought a bountiful harvest, with enough corn, fruits and vegetables to store for the winter. The pilgrims celebrated with their Indian neighbors in what is now traditionally called the first thanksgiving. Squanto and 90 Indian braves joined in a three-day celebration of games, races and skills demonstrations with their bows and arrows, and the pilgrims’ muskets.

In fairness to civilization, harvest thanksgiving celebrations didn’t begin with the pilgrims, dating back thousands of years to festivities heralded by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Chinese and the Egyptians. Greeks worshipped many gods and goddesses, with their goddess of corn and grains at the forefront. The goddess Demeter was honored over a three-day period in hopes of good harvests. Cerelia, honoring the Roman goddess of corn, offered the first harvest fruits to Ceres each October 4th amidst parades, sports events and a thanksgiving feast.

Across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptians commemorated their harvest festival in the spring, honoring Min, the god of fertility and vegetation. The Pharaoh joined the festivities, and farmers wept and pretended to be grief-stricken, an effort to mislead Min, who they thought would be angry at the corn harvests. Jewish families, likewise, have been celebrating Sukkoth, a harvest festival, each autumn for more than 3,000 years. The Hag ha Succot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, and Hag ha Asif, the Feast of Ingathering, begins five days after Yom Kippur, the most revered day of the Jewish year.

Here in Asia, Chung Ch’ui, the Chinese harvest festival, is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar year, in tribute to the moon. The festival gives thanks for good fortunes with moon cakes, yellow and round, shaped like the moon.

Thanksgiving in America became an institution as early as the late 1600’s, but turkey found its place when President Abraham Lincoln made it a formal holiday in 1863. By Lincoln’s orders, the feast was to extend to all Union soldiers fighting the Civil War, and turkeys were chosen over chickens because they were bigger and more cost-effective. Flyer and Fryer don’t believe they’re the best meal choice, noting that geese and ducks are the mainstay in many thanksgiving feasts.

Turkey is synonymous with Thanksgiving, and together with cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and green beans, it’s a tasty tradition. The Detroit Lions have become an integral part of Thanksgiving, as the National Football League team hasn’t missed hosting a Thanksgiving Day game since 1934. The Dallas Cowboys are close behind, hosting continuous holiday football games since 1966.

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