Thanksgiving history, from Plymouth to the Brady Bunch

Cameron Smyth Commentary

Happy Thanksgiving, Santa Clarita! Like many of you, I plan to have the cliché Thanksgiving Day: overeating, napping and watching football. Of course, I will also take some time to give thanks that despite all the challenges faced over the past year, we are fortunate to live in this county, in this community, at this time.
While I was also inclined to follow another cliché by composing my own list of reasons to be thankful, I thought it would be more fun to take a look at the history of this holiday and how we’ve ended up celebrating the way we do now.
I came to this inspiration after watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” as well as the “Thanksgiving episode” of “The Brady Bunch” (yes, I watch “The Brady Bunch”). While much of what is portrayed about Thanksgiving is based in fact, it really falls into the category of Historical Fiction.
One thing most historians can agree upon is the first record of a “thanksgiving” was held in 1621 after the first fall harvest, and although the exact date is unknown it was most likely held in early October. Records show that after the harvest had come in, the governor sent four men out “fowling” to bring meat to accompany the harvest celebration. The settlers were seen by members of the Wampanoag tribe who, upon hearing the gunshots, feared war was brewing and alerted their leader, Massasoit, who then visited the English settlement with 90 of his men.
After realizing there was no war, he sent some of his own men on a deer hunt to join the feast, which actually ended up lasting three days. Along with the dear and fowl (including turkey) the menu likely included other foods harvested from the ocean including several varieties of fish and crustaceans. Along with the corn and wheat from the harvest, ground nuts, beans, fruits and wild berries were also likely included. No record of pigs, goats or cattle exist, which isn’t a surprise since they did not arrive until two years later.
From that first harvest feast, “thanksgiving” virtually disappears until William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” was recovered in 1854 after being stolen by the British during the war for independence. This find gave momentum to the efforts of author Sarah Josepha Hale (the composer of “Mary had a Little Lamb”), who in 1827 began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
After over three decades of effort, President Lincoln finally agreed and, in 1863, during middle of the Civil War, issued a proclamation calling all Americans to ask God to “heal the wounds of the nation” and scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November. It was celebrated on that day every year until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, trying to spark the economy during the depression, moved the holiday up a week. Roosevelt’s plan flopped when many states ignored his edict and, after two years, “Franksgiving” as it was called, came to an end when he signed federal legislation returning Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November.
So what about our second favorite Thanksgiving tradition… Football? How did it become a tradition and why do the Detroit Lions always have a game regardless of their record? First the tradition itself: Dating back to 1876, college football teams realized they could increase their crowds by playing on Thanksgiving Day since most people had the day off work. In that year, Yale and Princeton began an annual Thanksgiving game tradition and, through the 1890s, the University of Michigan played annual Thanksgiving games against the Chicago Maroons. These games are recognized as kick-starting the Thanksgiving game tradition.
At the professional level, the Detroit Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game (aside from 1941-45, during World War II) every year since 1934. It all goes back to when the Lions were purchased by a Detroit radio station owner named George A. Richards.
You have to remember, at that time baseball was in its heyday as “America’s favorite pastime” and the Detroit Tigers were a powerhouse. Struggling to draw a crowd and generate some buzz around the new team, Richards pitched the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Because he owned one of the largest radio stations in the country, Richards had the influence to convince NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations nationwide.
Fate also intervened when in that first year the Chicago Bears came into the game undefeated and defending NFL champions. The Lions had only one loss at the time, making the winner of the first Thanksgiving game champions of the NFL’s Western Division. Not only did the game sell out, but also fans had to be turned away at the gate. Not surprisingly, the Lions lost, but a tradition was born and the Lions have been playing (and usually losing) on Thanksgiving ever since.
So enjoy the day, Santa Clarita Valley — for we have many reasons to be thankful!