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The origins of Thanksgiving and how it’s celebrated

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When you think about it, Thanksgiving is a rather peculiar holiday. The celebration in this country seems to date back to the Pilgrims and Indians in 1621 when they gathered for a harvest celebration. So why isn’t it called Harvest Day? Or maybe it could be Feasting Day or Friendship Day.

But it’s not, it’s Thanksgiving Day, and giving thanks is just one of the activities associated with it. Abraham Lincoln declared Nov. 26 as an official federal holiday and, for many years it, like Christmas, occurred on different days of the week.

Franklin Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in November and it became the unofficial kickoff to the Christmas season. That, of course, suggests shopping, and in 1939, near the end of the Great Depression, Roosevelt moved the holiday back a week to encourage retail sales, earning the holiday the designation Franksgiving. Was that the inspiration for the current frenzy called Black Friday?

As Thanksgiving has become a family gathering time, it has also become a time for feasting on a familiar menu that includes turkey and dressing, cranberries, potatoes, pumpkin pie, and a variety of vegetables and fruits, some of which might have been at that first gathering in Plymouth. Deer and duck were more likely than the somewhat stringy wild turkeys that were available. Potatoes would not have been on the menu because they were not native to this country and Campbell Soup probably bears responsibility for green bean casserole, but pumpkin was plentiful and maybe there were nearby cranberry bogs, but I would bet on more likely fruits like apples and maybe persimmons.

Football seems to go with the feasting and that started with a game between Yale and Princeton in 1876. Other Thanksgiving Day rivalries have developed since then and TV has brought them into most living rooms. Those who aren’t football fans can watch the Macy’s parade, ongoing since 1922.

So, however you celebrate — at home or away, with family or friends or your favorite cat, eating turkey or takeout, watching football or giant balloons, or braving the shoppers who don’t wait for Black Friday, but start on the big day itself — I hope you have lots to be thankful for and enjoy!

Jean McCamy is a Wake Forest artist.

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