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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.

November Darkness

It’s that dark time of the year. It’s again those long evenings
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 forced other merchandisers to import poinsettias that have been artificially programmed to bloom early. By depriving them 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. 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.

A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Abraham Lincoln would be pained, and even more so would be Sarah Josepha Hale, the 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 wrote 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 focusing instead on 1621 and the Pilgrims.

But they 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 in 1620, 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. In my mind, there is no doubt 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? No, they didn’t accidentally go off course by more than 500 miles, the way that some accounts portray the navigational skills of the professional sailors hired for the Mayflower. Instead, the Pilgrim fathers wanted to avoid the Virginia colony to which they were supposed to be going, and they aimed for Massachusetts and independence. But there were not going to be any motels there, and if they wanted to go to New England, they should have aimed for June, not late December.

The Real First Thanksgivings

Better they should have come to Florida. They didn’t because it already was occupied -- by Spanish Catholics, an absolute anathema to English Puritans. And vice versa, as for several centuries, Florida was a theocracy: it was illegal to live here without converting to Catholicism.

What’s important here, though, is that we Floridians should 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 – more than five hundred years ago 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.

But Massachusetts built educational institutions, and Florida did not. New England trained most of America’s early teachers, and these women went west to one-room schoolhouses, where they taught the Plymouth version of history promoted by fellow New Englander Sarah Josepha Hale.

And then, about seventy years after Lincoln’s attempt to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, Franklin Roosevelt ensured it during the Great Depression. He set the permanent 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.


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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