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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Gobble, Gobble! A Brief History of Thanksgiving

It’s again that dark time of the year, with those long nights that follow the end of daylight savings time. It’s the way we measure seasons in the Sunshine State: When the oranges turn orange and the poinsettias turn red, we know that Christmas is near.

At least we used to, until Wal-Mart and even Florida’s sainted Publix started putting up their Christmas decorations while it’s still hot, before Halloween. They also have forced merchandisers to import poinsettias that have been artificially programmed to bloom early. By depriving the plants of daylight sooner than nature does, we have the miracle of mismatched seasonal signs.

You now can buy poinsettias weeks prior to Thanksgiving – and, of course, the mums that are associated with Thanksgiving were sold out in September, when it’s still monsoon season. Don’t ask why. Poor Thanksgiving! What an ignoble status it’s been reduced to, a mere bump in the road to Christmas cash registers.

Abraham Lincoln would be pained, and even more so would be Sarah Josepha Hale, the primary originator of our holiday. Hale, a young New Hampshire widow with five children to support, moved her brood to Boston and, in 1828, became editor of Ladies Magazine, the nation’s first such. Magazines in general were new, and one aimed at women was particularly a venture capital risk.

“Editor” is not truly accurate, for Hale also was the author of almost everything in the magazine during its early days. She turned it into the century’s most successful periodical -- even after a new owner named it for himself, dubbing it Godey’s Lady’s Book. Along the way, she crusaded for an annual day of thanksgiving, an idea that Abraham Lincoln accepted during the somber days of the Civil War.

So the holiday’s origin was political, a definite Yankee PR move, and it took a while for Southerners to accept the notion. Because of that, our national mythology kind of reworked itself, skipping over Lincoln and Hale and the Civil War, and focusing instead on 1621 and the Pilgrims.

* * *

The most important factor in this revisionism was that New England built educational institutions and trained most of America’s early teachers. These women went west to one-room schoolhouses, where they taught the Plymouth version of history promoted by fellow New Englander Sarah Josepha Hale.

But the Pilgrims weren’t the first, you know. The first English-speaking colony that lasted was Virginia’s Jamestown, begun in 1607. Those settlers, however, were all male, and none of them represented the values that our society wants to promote with Thanksgiving.
These guys not only starved because they would not work, they also left each other to die and then stole the deceased’s little property. Most of the women who joined them in 1609 also were England’s dregs. The capitalists who owned the Jamestown enterprise found these women in London’s prisons and brothels, brought them to Virginia, and literally sold them to the highest bidder.

The winter after the women arrived, the truly dark days of 1609-10, was called the “starving tyme:” Out of approximately 500 Jamestown colonists, some 450 died. One man, wrote Captain John Smith, “did kill his wife…and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed.”

No wonder we opt for Plymouth’s Pilgrims as our Thanksgiving ideal! Even there, though, women suffered disproportionately. Of the 104 people aboard the Mayflower, just 18 were adult women (at least three of whom were pregnant when they ventured into the unknown). By the end of their first terrible winter, 14 of the 18 were dead.

This 78% mortality rate compares with 40% for Plymouth’s men, and just 16% for children – during an era when childhood death numbers often were higher under purely normal circumstances. There is no doubt in my mind that these women literally starved themselves to death so that their children could eat.

And just what WERE their men thinking when they timed the voyage to arrive at this absolute wilderness in DECEMBER?

* * *

Better they should have come to Florida. They didn’t because it already was occupied -- by Spanish Catholics, who were absolute anathema to English Puritans.

It’s important that we Floridians know that we come much closer to the claim of holding the first Thanksgiving. It took place in St. Augustine, which -- despite the international image of Florida as a twentieth century, Disney World, not-quite-real place – is in fact the oldest American city. Soon after the first Spanish settlers arrived, they held a celebratory mass of thanksgiving on September 8, 1565.

And others had preceded that. The first that can be verified, at sites that turned out to be impermanent, was with Ponce de Leon’s voyage in 1513 – five hundred years ago this year and more than a century prior to the Pilgrims. (And by the way, women were aboard all six of the exploratory voyages that occurred prior to permanent settlement in 1565.)

Other American presidents and governors declared various days of Thanksgiving well before Lincoln did. Except for abstruse historians such as yours truly, these Thanksgivings are mostly forgotten now. Nor are the harsh facts behind that first famous Pilgrim feast clearly spelled out in our national memory.

The truth is that the Founding Fathers planned so poorly that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock on December 25th B but that date did not matter because these pious people did not celebrate the cheerful holiday of Christmas. They viewed England’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” version of Christmas as little short of sinful, and they did not acknowledge the date.

Moreover, disease had spread during their long weeks at sea, and the Pilgrims were so sick that it was late January before any housing was built -- and it was a twenty-foot square structure much smaller than their small ship. The food supply ran out, and death came almost daily in February and March. Funerals were conducted furtively in darkness, lest spying Wampanoags see the diminishment of their numbers.

But their fears were wrong, and the natives helped them through the spring and summer. After they had harvested their crop the next November, the two groups celebrated. The menu included not only those native foods that we associate with Thanksgiving -- turkey, cranberries, corn, and squashes, including pumpkin -- but also clams, lobster, venison, and other bounty that native women doubtless introduced to the newcomers. Teenage girls, including the famed Priscilla Alden, probably constituted most of the white cooks; their mothers rested on the high hill of the colony’s cemetery.

* * *

That was 1621, and a little more than three centuries later, President Franklin Roosevelt ensured the permanence of Thanksgiving during the Great Depression. He set the date of the fourth Thursday in November as an inducement to early Christmas shopping – and here we are, stuck with a Christmas season that begins when daylight savings time ends, and Thanksgiving all but missing in the middle.

I’ll have more to say about Florida’s first Thanksgiving in the book on Florida women that the University Press of Florida should publish very soon. Meanwhile, you might want to try the non-turkey food centerpiece that UF historian Michael Gannon believes was served on September 8, 1565, when Pedro Menendez Aviles and the settlers he led gave thanks for their safe arrival at St. Augustine. Gannon believes that the feature of this meal was stewed pork and garbanzo beans, or essentially the recipe that Floridians know as sopa de garbanzo or Spanish bean soup. The recipe, as prepared by Tampa’s famous Columbia Restaurant and published in the Junior League’s Gasparilla cookbook, is:

2 pound dried garbanzo beans

1 tablespoon salt

2 quarts water

1 beef bone

1 ham bone

1 pound of potatoes

2 ounces lard

4 ounces white bacon

1 onion

Pinch of paprika

Pinch of saffron

1 chorizo sausage

Soak garbanzos overnight with a tablespoon of salt in sufficient water to cover the beans. When ready to cook, drain the salted water from the beans, and place them with the beef bone and ham bone in the two quarts of water. Cook for 45 minutes at low heat. Fry the white bacon, with paprika and onions, in the lard. Add to the beans. Also at this time add the quartered potatoes, saffron and salt to taste. When potatoes are done, remove from fire and add chorizos cut in thin slices. Serves four.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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