By Jason Schock
In September 1620, the Mayflower left England carrying 102 immigrants seeking a New World, enticed by the prospect of prosperity and freedom to pray as they pleased. Three months later – 66 days of which were spent on the hazardous open seas of the Atlantic – William Bradford and the “Pilgrims,” as they are now commonly known, disembarked at Plymouth Rock. Only half of the Mayflower’s original manifest survived the harsh winter and contagious disease to see spring 1621. Those who endured were greeted kindly by a Native American named Squanto, who taught the newcomers how to cultivate corn and catch fish.
He also helped the former Europeans forge an alliance with the local Wampanoag Tribe that would endure for more than 50 years. In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Bradford organized a three-day celebratory feast and invited a group of the colony’s Native American allies. No one knew it at the time, but that “Thanksgiving” shared by 53 colonists and 90 Native Americans would expand to belt-busting proportions — quite literally — and stand the test of time (threatened only in modern history by the months-long commercialization of Christmas; if there was mention of “Black Friday” in the 17th Century, you can bet the connotation was altogether different and much less festive).
Thursday, Thanksgiving in America will celebrate a 394th birthday. The 145 or so first feasters enjoyed five deer (courtesy of the Wampanoag), swan, seal, duck, and pumpkin, squash, carrots and peas. No pie, just pumpkin, as the Mayflower by then was out of sugar. Pie was introduced a couple years later.
Today, nearly 88 percent of Americans consume about 46 million turkeys, or 700 million pounds, at Thanksgiving. The turkey with the presidential pardon? Turns out he’s very lucky. The average number of calories we will consume? 4,500! That’s the average, guys. So if your sister will take in 45 calories, as mine will, that means you, and I, are pushing to the right another whole decimal point.
Of course, then more than 50 million of us watch the Detroit Lions play football and, inevitably, purge — our bank accounts. The average American will spend about $400 on holiday shopping by the end of the weekend. Again, the average American.
The first settlers celebrated the end of a religious fast and a successful corn crop, President Washington called upon Americans to express their gratitude for successfully gaining their independence and the ratification of the Constitution, and Honest Abe sought to unify a wounded union in shock from a blood-soaked Civil War, urging all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. FDR’s “Franksgiving” was met with passionate opposition and in 1941 he signed Congress’ bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
That doesn’t mean he failed. Thursday, we will fill oversized plates filled with mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, candied yams, pie, more pie (another fun Thanksgiving fact: six million men over the age of 35 will eat the last piece of pie and then lie about it), and then go shopping. Gluttony is a sin, however, celebrating with family and expressing gratitude are at least acts of atonement, if not redemption, right?
Personally, I plan to celebrate with gusto, wear baggy pants with an elastic waistband, take that last piece of pie when nobody is looking, buy gifts my girls don’t need, but ones that put smiles on their faces, and all the while try to remain mindful that there are people who go without food on Thanksgiving. And then hold that thought: Americans consume 815 billion calories of food each of the other 364 days of the calendar year. That’s 200 billion more than we need and enough to feed 80 million people. We throw out 200,000 tons of edible food. In a nation where 47 million people — 21 percent of its children — live in poverty. If you think that its just a problem in the inner cities, think again. According to the Census Bureau, more than 17 percent of people in Richardson County live below the poverty line. More than half our local elementary schoolchildren are eligible for free and reduced lunch assistance (that’s a family of four with a household income below $31,000 in 2014).
Yet 100 percent of them appear to be grateful for what they do have.
Monday we asked local schoolteachers what their young preschoolers, kindergartners, first and second graders said they were most thankful for. There were, as anticipated, some wild, hilarious answers, from “cantaloupe,” “pants,” “my pig” and “John Cena.” But it was the answers you would most expect to hear, upon reflection, that should give us all some perspective: “my mom,” “dad,” “grandma,” “grandpa,” “my house,” “my friends,” “my teacher,” “food and water.” Gary, a kindergartner, appreciates his “hands.” Classmates Conner, who is thankful for his “eyes and legs,” and Madalynn similarly understand there is nothing in life any of us should ever take for granted.
Madalynn said she is grateful she has a brain. I would add it’s a sharp one.
The author was right: All you really need to know, you learned in kindergarten.
Share, play fair, hold hands and stick together.