Thankgiving: A moveable feast

November means that Halloween is over, elections have concluded early in the month and we can look forward to perhaps the best holiday of the year – Thanksgiving. To most of us, Thanksgiving is an important, soul-satisfying, family-oriented holiday, and we can eat without remorse and store calories for the hard winter ahead.

Virginians claim that the first Thanksgiving in America took place at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, when Captain John Woodlief led the newly-arrived English colonists to a grassy slope along the James River and instructed them to drop to their knees and pray in thanks for a safe arrival to the New World. It was Dec. 4, 1619. Other Virginians are also convinced their ancestors celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1610, when Jamestown settlers held a service of thanksgiving for survival following a harsh winter.

In any event, Virginians predated the Pilgrims, who arrived at Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1620, too late to have planted a crop. Their celebration in September 1621 was a true harvest festival and included Wampanoag Indians, wild turkeys, pumpkins and beer, but no football.

The dates of these celebrations, considered the “Firsts in America,” have been formally challenged: Spain scooped us again, as they did in tennis and soccer this year. El Paso, Texas, residents claim the earliest celebration of Thanksgiving in North America, first honored in 1989. The city recognized the unheralded Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate and his expedition of 500 people that reached the Rio Grande River on April 30, 1598.

Oñate was a member of a distinguished family that had loyally worked for the Spanish crown. He wanted to carve a place in history by leading an expedition into unexplored land, and was granted permission by the viceroy of New Spain to explore the northern Rio Grande Valley among the Pueblo Indians.

The expedition crossed the treacherous Chihuahuan Desert with little food or water. After recuperating for 10 days on the banks of the river, Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving for the survival of the expedition. Included in the event was a feast, supplied with game by the Spaniards and fish by the natives of the region. A mass was celebrated by the Franciscan missionaries traveling with the expedition. Oñate read La Toma – the taking – declaring the land drained by the Great River to be the possession of King Philip II of Spain. Some historians call this one of the truly important dates in the history of the continent, marking the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American Southwest. Other historians have noted that when Jamestown and Plymouth were established early in the 17th century, there were already hundreds of towns the Spanish had established in the New World.

With El Paso’s entry into the Thanksgiving sweepstakes, Texas now has two observances in what’s becoming a crowded field of locales vying for attention as the site of the first Thanksgiving. The second Texas claim was an event held earliest of all those claiming primacy. The Texas Society of Daughters of the American Colonists placed a marker in 1959 just outside Canyon City, which is a few miles south of what is now Amarillo, Texas. It declared that the expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in May 1541 celebrated the first feast of Thanksgiving in Palo Duro Canyon.

In Canada, Thanksgiving Day is observed each year on the second Monday in October. In the Virgin Islands, a day of thanksgiving is held in October in recognition of the end of the hurricane season.

Abraham Lincoln initiated the tradition of a national annual day of thanksgiving with a proclamation in 1863. Each state selected the day, which was usually, but not always, the last Thursday in November. This meant that travelers sometimes observed Thanksgiving twice. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt deviated from the practice of observing the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving because retailers noted that a November 30 observance of Thanksgiving that year would leave only 20 shopping days until Christmas. In 1941, he signed the law making the fourth Thursday in November the nation’s official Thanksgiving Day.

Modern lifestyles may well require further changes in the late fall holiday. The vacation and holiday schedules might easily be improved by making Thanksgiving Day the third Thursday in November. Benefits realized would include making the date more nearly the midpoint between Labor Day and Christmas, it would be closer to the mid-month pay period, and this would provide an extra week for Christmas shopping. It might then be enlarged by colleges and universities to provide a fall semester break. Change from daylight to standard time could be included.

This would require an act of Congress, but what better use could lawmakers make of their time?

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