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Thanksgiving: a time for football, turkey, reflection

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-11-25

Turkey talk around the dormitories and homes today can mean different things to different people; it’s Turkey day alright, and we’re focused both on the yummy kind and those that play on the gridiron.

Football enthusiasts have three games to potentially watch this Thanksgiving Day. The excitement level in each won’t stem as much from league standings as individual preferences. The 6-4 Green Bay Packers take on the hapless Detroit Lions (2-8) in the first, while the AFC West cellar-dwelling Oakland Raiders (3-7) face the NFC East division leading Dallas Cowboys. A third game this holiday pits two 6-4 teams, the Denver Broncos and New York Giants.

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.

It’s a sport, but… for that matter… so is the turkey challenge. How much can we gorge ourselves on, and how much turkey can we keep set aside for those all-important post-holiday sandwiches with cranberry sauce, the meat and a bit of pepper? 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.

There’s another turkey story for the day, and that’s the one of the big plump guy who this Thanksgiving holiday is telling his story thanks to a presidential pardon from Barack Obama (At least, we’re hoping the pardon goes through. At press time we’ve not received a White House confirmation of Obama’s intentions, but he did do justice last Easter to a white bunny).

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, for example, they chose Marshmallow and Yam, while Biscuit and Gravy avoided the chef’s axe on another.

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. Samoset, after spending much time with the Pilgrims, slipped away, then came back two days later with Squanto, who spoke English much better than himself. Squanto, a Patuxet American Indian and 90 of his Indian braves then joined in the 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.

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