I'm glad you're still here. Put on a jockstrap; you're about to get sacked in the Knowledge Bowl.
The Pilgrim Fathers at the Plymouth Feast in 1621 weren't Puritans. They were Brownist Separatists who suffered religious persecution because their church taught that they should annoy the hell out of their neighbors. They sneaked away to Amsterdam, only to discover it contained Dutch people, so they set sail for Massachusetts (a tribal word meaning "That's a lot of chusetts!"). They landed at Plymouth Rock*, saving it to later land on Malcolm X.
If Plymouth rocks, does that mean Blarney's stoned?
*Except that probably didn't happen either.
The rest of the story you know: they lucked into Squanto (more on him in a minute), borrowed some food from the Wampanoag tribe and when their crops came up, it was praise the lord and pass the turkey.
Too bad for your school play that Spanish explorers in the Texas panhandle held the first Thanksgiving back in 1541 to thank God for the chance to swipe firsties from Englishmen. Zoiks!
Spain all up in this American bitch. A few years after that dubious first Thanksgiving came the ascent of Philip II, king of pajamas, and also Spain.
Philip II prepares for bed.
In 1564, some French Huguenots celebrated their own thanksgiving for safe landing, even if it was in Florida. These colonists honored King Charles by naming their settlement "Fort Caroline." Oh, France! Sometimes you are too French for your own good. This was one of those times.
Spain heard about the gender-bending fort and said, "Thees weel no do!" while twirling its waxed mustache. Philip was busily Inquiring the crap out of non-Catholics back in Spain, and decided he couldn't have anyone teaching Indians the wrong way to cower before God. Historically, Catholicism and brutality are two ideas Spain has a hard time relinquishing, or even distinguishing. When his highness' Darth Vader, Admiral Pedro Menendez, landed in Florida, he threw his own party of thanks -- unfortunately for the French, this was the kind where the pinatas are Protestants.
Brought to you by authoritarianism!
Nobody expected this joke!
Amidst La Inquisicion Dos: La Bugalu Electrica, Menendez founded St. Augustine and held yet another thanksgiving with the native Timicuans, meaning the Spaniards can even claim the first cross-cultural Thanksgiving.
So why don't we celebrate that feast of thanks instead of the one that happened years later up north? Well, in addition to the obvious fact that none of those people's offspring ever got elected president, they dined on bean soup. That's an even sadder Thanksgiving meal than a Hungry Man dinner served to an elderly widower whose children don't visit the nursing home anymore. Speaking of which, that was the last time Floridians had anything to be thankful for.
But that's to be expected, right? America was officially settled by the English, so that's whose day of thanks they celebrate today, right?
Still, you can draw a straight line from our holiday back to the minimally murderous 1621 feast in Plymouth: turkey, the itis and sharing a meal likely to break into a fight. All they left out was tracing hand-turkeys on construction paper.
If you don't still make these, you're not having fun.
The only catch is they didn't think they were having a Thanksgiving. And they should know. As you might have noticed in the Florida example, you couldn't turn around in those days without running into a feast of thanks. It was kind of an official thing, and the Plymouth settlers had one every week -- presumably giving thanks that their blood was recovered from scurvy but not yet healthy enough to be appetizing to malaria carrying mosquitoes. The point is, the 1621 shindig American traditions recreate and tell stories about on Thanksgiving was not one of them. It was a harvest festival.
This belongs to us all
And therefore an excuse to show this picture.
Of all the official thanks those grateful fauns gave, this was not one of them -- replace the prayer and contemplation with gut-busting portions and camaraderie. The Pilgrims had just cleared their first crops, meaning they could get off the Wampanoag welfare teat. They invited their benefactors to party with them, and hey! Good times in America!
So it turns out the gluttony part is the only thing our Thanksgiving got right. In fact, if you were to go back in time to the meal we're supposedly recreating, and asked one of the settlers how their Thanksgiving was going, they'd think you were being a buzz kill. It would be like your ancestors coming back to a college football tailgate, and asking us how we were enjoying keeping holy the Sabbath. Thanksgiving was every freaking Sunday. The harvest festival was their one chance to forget about being thankful, and just eat and drink their faces off. The idea that you would show thanks while doing that would have been completely baffling to them. But that's just because they didn't know how thankful we could be for pie.
Harvest festivals were about all the Pilgrims and Wampanoags had in common. The only other thing they shared? Tisquantum.
German Kali Works
He was much more helpful than Tisanalog and Tisdigital.
Tisquantum became Squanto, the archetypal friendly Indian. He helped the white man out, and in return the white man invited him to his bitching party. Even Steven! We suppose now you're going to tell us that Squanto doesn't accept payment in turkey. We have a word for people who go back on deals, Squanto. It's called ... well, never mind.
Guns, germs and steel.
Native Americans got it worse than anybody in this country's history, and despite being the mascot for how great everyone was getting along back then, Squanto was one of the best examples. Kidnapped by an Englishman, purchased by Spanish friars and somehow able to talk his way back home, the guy had every right to hate England. When his buddy Samoset introduced him to the Pilgrims at the end of a mean winter, Squanto could have left them to suffer from freezing, starvation and Englishness.
Instead of generalizing, he taught them farming and hunting methods, while negotiating a little farm-aid from the Wampanoag tribe. If there was anything to be thankful for in 1621, it was Tisquantum. He corrected the Pilgrims' method of working the earth at high-speed to the sound of "Yakety-Sax."
But he didn't just save the Pilgrims from nature; he saved them from getting indiscriminately whacked, and paid for it with his life.
After five years of eating terrible pub food, Tisquantum made it back to his village only to discover that everyone had died of plague. All his family, all his friends, Shakespeare* ... dead in the five years he'd been in England. So on the bright side: he was now chief of his tribe. On the much darker side:
Brought to you by smallpox!
"Tisquantum" was a Patuxet name meaning "Forever Alone."
One morning, he experienced that joy every man feels at least once in his life: the day you learn your oppressors are living in the boneyard of your ancient culture. And even though the best science of the day knew contagion was either caused by sin or a witch's curse, nobody picked up on the fact that new diseases were popping up wherever white folks went.
Squanto had hired himself out as a guide and translator, only to see his clients slaughtered by the Wampanoag. If the Pilgrims had made a wrong move, well ... it's not that the tribe was hellbent on killing Europeans (another English speaker, Samoset, treated them pretty well); they just weren't inexperienced in the craft.
His negotiating peace between the two groups, and the half-century of good relations that followed, was amazing when you consider neither side fully trusted him at first. In fact, at one point the Wampanoag chief Massasoit was convinced Tisquantum had betrayed him, and demanded the English hand him over.
Making things worse, in the spring of 1622, Myles Standish decided to just up and stab himself some natives. Market research showed the move tested poorly among a sample poll of local tribes. And still the double-outsider Squanto spent the rest of his life knotting the ties that bound.
And what was his reward? Dead in a year of smallpox. Some historians think that was odd after he'd survived several years in London, and suggest that the Wampanoag poisoned him, but smallpox is kind of hard to mistake. Either way, he was a classier guy than either side he helped.
Historians agree "Pilgrims vs. Turkeys" was the dumbest season of Survivor yet.
Cracked has touched on this subject before, so we assume you know the Thanksgiving phenomenon was pushed squealing out of New England and birthed into America at large by magazine editress Sarah Hale. It would be like if Cosmopolitan spent two decades pushing Talk like a Pirate Day, which would actually be that magazine's least crazy advisory.
In a period when women's liberation was being allowed to choose your own husband, Hale was too busy doing more before 5 a.m. than most armies do all day to realize she was oppressed. She edited one of the most popular magazines in the country, founded Vassar College, authored "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and had a few schemes to end slavery without rupturing the country.
Brought to you by sex!
She was one of the five women strong enough to carry fetal Teddy Roosevelt to term.
As you might expect of a woman with five kids, Mrs. Hale knew the secret to a happy marriage is frequent genetic exchange. As North and South bickered "Slavery is immoral," versus "Mmmmaaaybe, but it's really useful to us," Hale told America to get a room. She frequently published stories about Southerners and Northerners overcoming their faults (slavery, Irishness) to pursue common goals (new flavors of pie, heaving bosoms).
All hope for the future rests on this.
For 17 years, Hale nagged governors and presidents to forge a little common culture (again: pie). It wasn't till halfway through the Civil War that Lincoln figured it was worth a shot.
Admittedly, this joke WAS expected.
The problem was the South already had a Thanksgiving.
Even though Thanksgiving as we celebrate it does stem from the loose New England tradition perpetuated by the Northern states, in 1861 Jefferson Davis proclaimed a thanksgiving, but his was a day of fasting and humiliation.
Brought to you by oligarchy!
Not as fun to celebrate.
Then in September of 1862, a full year before Sarah Hale wrote this letter to Lincoln that led to our non-slavey Thanksgiving, Davis commemorated two military victories by proclaiming, in much more familiar language, a day of thanksgiving.
But hold up, Johnny Reb, because Lincoln was declaring so many T-days, it's easier to ask what he wasn't thankful for. (The answer, of course, is Mary Todd Lincoln.) Though he proclaimed traditional Thanksgiving a month after Davis, Lincoln had issued a different one in July, and one even earlier than Davis in 1862.
Brought to you by history!
Their calendar was lousy with thanks.
Anyway, the whole question is moot, because Washington had declared his first presidential Thanksgiving in 1789, and one as a general in 1777, the same month the Continental Congress set theirs. Like we said, people had more gratitude back then, and less Dunlap-belly.
So really, this holiday should be celebrated by burning "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne in effigy.
As early as whatever century Alexander Q. Hamilton was President of England*, he was ordering colonists to ingest copious amounts of turkey in a bizarre medical experiment, proclaiming, "No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." However, this may have been a feint to convince Aaron Burr he didn't give a damn what happened to Burr's turkey hostages.
Cracked paid for this; might as well run it.
The weird thing is, the first dish to emerge as a traditional Thanksgiving entree was pork ribs, not turkey.
Unless that's exactly what the Pork Council wants us to believe.
That's the Chicago way!
Unlike turkey, which could feed a hard-working farm family of 10 at one feast (or John Madden at brunch), a pig takes a lot of eating. Who wants to eat all their bacon for the year on one day? Late autumn was the best time to butcher because the pig had fattened up for winter, and the whole world was an icebox.
Besides, you gotta eat special. Hang out in the forest for 10 minutes and a turkey will pick a fight with you because it stupidly thinks it's still a dinosaur. Eating the same thing you always do on your big feast day? That's like a wedding night where nobody hops in the sex-swing. But now we get pork all year-round, families are smaller, and it's turkey that's a pain (hey, it's a big bird.)
By 1857, turkey had become a traditional part of Thanksgiving dinner ... but only in New England, where tight-fisted Yankees will suppress any smile if it saves a dollar. Of course, traditional Thanksgiving feasts vary by your locale and culture. A San Franciscan may eat dungeness crab, a resident of Maine might hunt venison because he's in a Live-Action Role Playing club, while a vegetarian will swallow tofurkey and his own hollow arguments that it really does taste just as good.
Who dares awaken the Cosmic Crab? Speak thy name, astral traveler!
So there's some gnosis for ya. The important thing is that the idea of Thanksgiving -- throwing an arm around your loved ones, busting a gut and appreciating both -- is still the truth. The best way we can honor that idea is to spread it around in practice. This season, give your fellow man something to be thankful for. Perhaps one of your homeless friends has become desperate enough to accept the canned food you don't want to eat. Or maybe a neighborhood child needs your help buying cigarettes. If you know any Native Americans, remind them that you haven't killed their family this year, and they should show some gratitude.
Brendan McGinleyis thankful for this gig.
For more from Brendan, check out 6 Pro-Gay Marriage Arguments for Fighting With Crazy People and 7 Comic Characters Who Outlasted the Trends That Made Them.