Everything You Need To Know About Thanksgiving
Photo: Theo Wargo (Getty)
It’s November and it’s time to prepare yourself to be lowered head-first into a 55-gallon drum of delicious turkey gravy, just like how all real Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Before you do that, however, you might be interested in the uniquely weird ways this holiday came to be, from the myths surrounding the Pilgrims’ “first” Thanksgiving to international Thanksgiving traditions from Japan to Canada.
Everything You Need To Know About Thanksgiving
MYTH: THE TRYPTOPHAN IN TURKEY MAKES YOU SLEEPY
Tryptophan in its pure, uncut form does indeed help the brain to go to sleep. Tryptophan surrounded by hot delicious turkey juices, however, has no actual effect on the brain; the claim that it did was actually part of a publicity campaign by a coalition of mattress manufacturers in the ’80s. So what makes you so drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner? It might have something to do with gorging on ten meals’ worth of food and booze and then having to watch the Detroit Lions play terrible football.
FACT: A ‘TURKEY SHOOT’ ACTUALLY USED TO BE PRETTY HARD
Turkeys are notoriously difficult to hunt, so it’s odd that the phrase “turkey shoot” has become slang for something almost ridiculously easy. As it turns out, a turkey shoot wasn’t a mano-a-birdo contest of stalking and hiding skills, but a 19th-century tradition where farm-raised turkeys were tied to logs with only their neck and head showing and Thanksgivers were challenged to decapitate the fowl with a single shot. That’s easy with modern guns, but with a smoothbore musket, crude iron sights, and a marksman who was almost certainly drunk, initial turkey shoots could be tricky propositions.
MYTH: THE PILGRIMS INVITED THE NATIVES TO THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
Ever end up at a party just by walking by and noticing lots of loud music and drunk people? That’s sort of how Native Americans ended up at New England’s first Thanksgiving, with the added element of “what the hell are those crazy assholes shooting at?” The Wampanoag had a loose treaty with the first settlers—defined by one Native historian as “you watch our back and we’ll watch yours”—and the gunfire and chaos of the English harvest feast drew Wampanoags worried that the settlement was under attack. As it turned out, it was just a case of white people acting the fool, and the Natives were welcomed with beer, pie, and the occasional condescending religious sermon.
FACT: THE SPANIARDS TOTALLY DID
The REAL first Thanksgiving actually took place September 8, 1565, in what is now St. Augustine in Florida, held by the forces of Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and combined the common European tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest season and a special giving of thanks for allowing them to survive an insanely dangerous sea voyage. Menendez invited the local Timucua tribe to partake in the feast, and the Natives not only agreed but brought along venison and native specialties like tortillas and refried beans. This marked the beginning of Latin American cuisine and also one of the few times the Spanish ever did anything to Native Americans that wasn’t horrible.
MYTH: EVERYONE AT (NEW ENGLAND) THANKSGIVING DRESSED LIKE A HUGE DORK
The persistent image of the first non-Spanish Thanksgiving is sober Pilgrims in black buckled hats and shoes breaking bread with noble Natives in loincloths and headdresses. This is dumb for many reasons: one, buckles were expensive luxury goods not generally available to desperate religious fanatics who had just crossed an ocean. Two, the all-black Protestant Reformer look was long out of style by the time the English were settled in America—they were wearing comfortable, colorful clothes just like most other Europeans. Three, no Native American in history has ever been dumb enough to wander around New England in late autumn just wearing a breechcloth—like all sensible people they were bundled up in buckskin jackets and long shirts.
FACT: THANKSGIVING OFFICIALLY EXISTS BECAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR
Abolitionist, novelist, editor, and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” creator Sarah Josepha Hale spent 17 years trying to make Thanksgiving an official nation-wide holiday rather than a randomly chosen evening for New Englanders to pig out on turkey and cornbread. Four different presidents chose to ignore the crazy poet lady and her insistence on standardized turkey consumption, but a letter to Abe Lincoln in September of 1863 hit a nerve: Hale, who had always believed in a unified and strong America, argued that a new national celebration could help bring the North and South together after the war. Lincoln agreed, and a nationwide date for Thanksgiving (originally the last Thursday in November) was set at the end of Reconstruction in 1870.
MYTH: ONLY AMERICA CELEBRATES THANKSGIVING
In fact, most cultures have a fall harvest celebration of various degrees of religiosity often known as a day of giving thanks, but America isn’t the only one to officially call it Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving occurs on the second Monday of October and supposedly descends from a mass held by Martin Frobisher in 1578, which leads many smug Canadians to declare it “the real first Thanksgiving” because they too have forgotten about the Spaniards in St. Augustine. Canadian Thanksgiving is almost identical to American Thanksgiving, right down to the Canadian Football League’s Thanksgiving Day Classic (which the Detroit Lions also lose, in this case because they’re not invited to play in it). The sole significant difference is the setting of an additional seat at each table for Wayne Gretzky and that by Canadian law all drunken arguments between family members must be concluded with the word “sorey.”
FACT: THANKSGIVING WAS MOVED TO BOOST THE ECONOMY
Fans of our horribly broken two-party system might like to know that the date Thanksgiving was celebrated was once a political issue. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was the 30th, and retailers were worried about not having enough time for Christmas sales. Franklin D. Roosevelt (or as he is often known, “F-Dawg”) declared the second-to-last Thursday to be the new Thanksgiving, and about half the nation agreed (Democrats), about half sneered at the so-called “Franksgiving” (Republicans), and a minority celebrated both Thanksgivings (people who love turkey). Congress eventually declared the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving, which was sometimes last and sometimes second-last. This was settled in October 1941, giving everyone lots of time to settle down and not worry about getting involved in a gigantic war.
MYTH: KFC IS PART OF THE JAPANESE THANKSGIVING TRADITION
No, you’re actually thinking of Japanese Christmas or “Kurisamasu,” which is at least ten times weirder than Japanese Thanksgiving and does indeed involve the venerated Colonel Sanders, or “Uncle Kentucky” as he is often known in Japan. Japanese Thanksgiving is officially Labor Thanksgiving Day, and combines the ancient harvest festival of Niiname-sai with a day of recognition for all Japanese laborers, particularly public servants like police and garbage collectors. The modern tradition was started in 1948 to establish the new civil and labor rights guaranteed by the post-war Japanese constitution, and Labor Thanksgiving Day meals typically include rice, pickled vegetables, rice, pickled meats, rice, pickled rice, and probably still stopping by KFC for a Famous Bowl.
FACT: EVERYONE GETS CRUNK ON THANKSGIVING EVE
Some call it Drunksgiving, some call it Blackout Wednesday, some can’t even form coherent words, but everyone agrees that the night before Thanksgiving is the night to hit up your local and drown your brain in booze. Bars across America know “Thanksgiving Eve” can be one of the most profitable nights of the year, rivaling St. Paddy’s and Labor Day: almost everyone has tomorrow off, lots of people are in their hometown looking to relive old memories, and no matter how bad your hangover is going to be you can count on huge amounts of food to cushion the blow.