5 fun facts for Thanksgiving table talk
*Editor’s note: There was a typo in one of the years in the last Thanksgiving fact. Godzilla and King Kong Day flourished between 1976 and 1985. It has been fixed online.
Dropping some knowledge can distract you from wanting to punch Uncle Gene. Everyone meets Uncle Gene at some holiday gathering, even if his name’s not Gene, and he’s not related to anyone there.
Four years ago, he ranted that the pork-eating centrist corporacrat in the White House was a secret Marxist Muslim. Last year, he grumbled about “heritage” being “erased.”
Any talk of politics, or even the weather, ends with Gene opening his mouth for speech rather than turkey. So, here’s a listicle of subjects that may flummox Gene into silence.
Thanksgiving used to be a second Halloween
Before you stuffed your real face, you wore a false one. Children wore creepy butcher-paper masks and begged door-to-door for pennies. Adults dressed not as pilgrims and gobblers, but as pirates and goblins.
Origins included Europeans bringing carnival traditions to the New World, children spoofing real beggars (something it would have been in bad taste to do at Christmas), college hepcats wanting to be sexy chorus girls and flappers wanting to be gangsters (there was a lot of cross-dressing), and poor immigrants spoofing stuffy formal parades. It died out due to “public moral” crackdowns, the rise of the Macy’s parade and radio popularizing Ivy League football.
The first Thanksgiving wasn’t at Plymouth
On Sept. 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers celebrated the founding of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida with a Mass of Thanksgiving, followed by a feast to which they invited the local Seloy tribe.
That’s right, the first Thanksgiving in the New World was held by Spanish-speaking immigrants. If Thursday is a potluck or you’re the host, you can make or bring Cocido Madrileño, which is what the Spanish ate. Or, as the Seloy may have done, you can bring venison, eel or mullet.
Neither was the second Thanksgiving
In December of 1619, two years before the famous feast at Plymouth, John Woodlief and his crew of 35 settlers landed on the shores of the James River in Virginia, where they held the first English speaking Thanksgiving in the New World. Their feast probably wasn’t much, just their remaining rations, which may have included salt pork, and to which they may have added local oysters. They were wiped out by the Powhatan two years later, just as the Plymouth settlers were having their first skirmish with the Narragansett. The Powhatan knew what was up.
The South considered Thanksgiving “Yankee propaganda”
By the Civil War, Thanksgiving celebrations were associated with Massachusetts, the state the South considered the Lair of Abolition. That’s why some in the Richmond government called North Carolina, and particularly its very Unionist Piedmont, “the Massachusetts of the South.” Editor, writer and abolitionist Sarah Josepha Hale, whose bestselling Northwood: Life North and South contrasted regressive plantation society with progressive New England, popularized the idea of the Thanksgiving turkey. She lobbied the federal government for decades to make the celebration a national holiday. In 1863, Lincoln did just that. But, of course, this made it even less popular with the Dixiecrat aristocracy, who seceded because they believed, with the all the fervor of Uncle Gene calling President Barack Obama a Marxist Muslim, that the new president and his party were out to free the slaves.
OK, Uncle Gene will probably have opinions on most of the above topics, after all. But here’s one that should be completely neutral. If Uncle Gene doesn’t like giant monster movies, roast him instead of the turkey.
Thanksgiving is Godzilla and King Kong Day
If you were a kid living in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut (which, despite the descriptor, also includes parts of Pennsylvania) between 1976 and 1985, your favorite thing about the holiday might have been WOR-TV Channel 9’s Thanksgiving Day monster movie marathons. These were sponsored by the Crazy Eddie (“His prices are insaaaaane!”) consumer electronics chain and commercial playground equipment manufacturer Playworld. The movie line-up, which would eventually extend through Black Friday, typically included Godzilla, King Kong, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Son of Kong, Son of Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.
Here, Uncle Gene, have some kaiju with your turkey.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.