FRANKFORT – When it comes to the history of Thanksgiving, there is a gap between what most of us were taught in school and what actually happened.
It’s true that the most famous of these feasts did indeed occur nearly 400 years ago, when the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who helped them gathered for a three-day harvest celebration.
That 1621 event wasn’t the first, however, to be held on what is now American soil. Historians believe that honor belongs to a Spanish explorer in the 1500s who called for a day of thanksgiving in present-day Texas, decades prior to the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.
Even among the earliest colonists, there were Thanksgiving celebrations before the one we all know. Some in Maine shared a similar meal with Native Americans in 1607, and settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, hosted a Thanksgiving prayer in 1619. That one, however, was not centered on food; in fact, it was likely a time of fasting.
As for the meal featuring the Pilgrims and Native Americans, no one can say for sure when it occurred exactly, only that it was sometime following that year’s harvest. Two years later, the Pilgrims did have a meal they called Thanksgiving, but that was in July.
President Washington helped to solidify this holiday’s place in November in the late 1700s, but even that strayed from time to time. Here in Kentucky, for example, Governor Letcher declared Sept. 26, 1844, as a day of “prayer, praise and thanksgiving.”
The most famous native Kentuckian, President Lincoln, is credited with mostly settling the holiday’s current location on the calendar by establishing it on the last Thursday in November. In the 1940s, Congress tweaked that a little so it would always be the fourth Thursday, ensuring some years, like this one, wouldn’t have a shortened holiday season.
For most of us, the turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, but it might not have been that way if Benjamin Franklin had pushed harder for it to be an enduring symbol of the United States. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote that he thought the turkey was a better choice than an eagle because the former was native to this country and “a bird of courage.”
Another hallmark of the holiday in modern times is that many travel to be with family. According to AAA, more than 54 million Americans are expected to drive or fly at least 50 miles this month, which would be a 13-year high.
We cannot mention the meal without giving thanks to the farmers who provide it. For more than 30 years now, the American Farm Bureau Federation has been calculating the cost to feed a family of 10 on Thanksgiving, and this year’s comes in at $48.90. That’s the lowest since 2010, and when adjusted for inflation, it’s almost exactly the same cost as it was in 1989.
Of course, not all meals this Thursday will be eaten at home. Local restaurants will be serving many, as will all but two of our state resort park restaurants (Buckhorn Lake and Kenlake are the two exceptions). The cost per meal, excluding tax, is $19.50 for adults and $9.50 for children six to 12; children five and younger eat for free.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many are also working this holiday and during the weekend. We owe a considerable amount of thanks to those who are there day and night to keep us safe and cared for, and who volunteer for charity or work in the retail establishments where many of us will shop.
If you are among those who will be traveling, please take extra precautions this holiday. It is a busy time on our roads and highways, and there’s always a chance weather could be a factor as well.
For now, my family and I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a great holiday season as well.