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Article Published November 27, 2019
Thanksgiving 2019: The Best of the Rest of the Weekend
Pem McNerney, Living Editor

Thanksgiving weekend for most families is a time of participating in time-honored traditions, including eating turkey, watching a football game or parade, shopping, and, of course, spending time with family.

For those looking for something to do after all the turkey is gone, it might be time to start up a new tradition. And so we’re offering a variety of options that can be enjoyed with local or out-of-town family, or without the family, if at some point it seems like a better idea to leave them at home.

Activities going on this Thanksgiving weekend start with two road races on Thanksgiving day and, in the days after Thanksgiving, include a Black Friday benefit concert to help feed the hungry, an opportunity to write letters to Santa or have him read a story to your kids, tree lightings, a festival of trees, several art shows, a Motown dance party, a one-man play by ironworker royalty, a free performance of Nutcracker highlights, and a concert of carols.

Whether starting with a new tradition, or sticking with the same-old, same-old tried and happily true traditions, it can be interesting to examine those traditions, says Mike McBride, the historian at the 1639 Henry Whitfield House in Guilford. The Whitfield house will once again be open the day after Thanksgiving for a program that examines the myths and origins of some of those Thanksgiving traditions.

When Thanksgiving Wasn’t Thanksgiving

While Colonial-era settlers likely did have a big harvest festival to celebrate a successful harvest, the first Thanksgiving wasn’t called Thanksgiving. Turkey wasn’t featured; rather the menu likely included deer, pheasant and all manner of small birds, lots of seafood, and corn, squash, and beans. The Whitfield house will be offering small samples of modern adaptations of some of those things. But not squash.

“We used to put the squash out, but no one was eating it. We’ve given up on that. But we usually have a little square pumpkin pie. Popcorn. Sunflower seeds. And beef jerky, a modern version of what they called pemmican,” McBride says. “People can come in and snack their way through.”

The practice of having a harvest festival to give thanks likely goes back to ancients times and cultures that include the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, he says. The tradition of a harvest festival also was prevalent in the area of what is now Mexico and the American southwest as early as the 1500s, before the pilgrims even landed, he says.

“Through all cultures and religions, there have been festivals and feasts and ceremonies involving food at harvest time,” he says. “It’s silly to say the pilgrims invented Thanksgiving, because they didn’t. So, basically, in 1621, there was a festival. It was probably a three-day festival. It wasn’t just a one-day, one-meal and done kind of thing. They gave prayers when they ate.”

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, formalizing the practice of celebrating it on that day.

As for football games and parades, McBride says there were some practices in the Colonial era that were consistent with those traditions.

“There were games played and native Americans did love to play an early form of lacrosse,” he says. “And, then, interestingly, sometimes the puritan or pilgrim men would march and fire off muskets. While it’s a long stretch, you could say that’s parading. So then we come up with the Macy’s parade, which was sheer commercialism. When that started in 1924, that was part of the whole let’s-try-to-get-the-shopping-season-started-early thing.”

He says the current focus on commercialism and secularism is very different from the pilgrim’s day of thanks, which was a day of prayer, and that over time it has fluctuated “back and forth, from a happy harvest festival that is non-religious to one that is very religious and back and forth.”

Blissfully Politics-Free Conversations

McBride says one of his favorite things about the Whitfield day-after-Thanksgiving event is listening to families. The exhibit about traditions usually sparks discussions of both Thanksgiving and Christmas. He says the discussions are generally blissfully politics-free.

“It’s always nice to be on the periphery and hear people just reminiscing and tell family stories. ‘Oh, I remember the time we went to the Macy’s parade. And the time we burned the turkey and had to order Chinese. And we always went to Grandma’s house. And we did this and we did this in this order,’” he says.

Christmas tree-trim discussions can get very intense, he adds: “It’s a riot. ‘What do you mean, you just, just threw tinsel on in bunches? My mother used tweezers!’”

He adds that the Thanksgiving holiday, for all the myths and legends surround it, is uniquely American.

“Out of all the holidays, Thanksgiving really, truly is an American-created holiday. We take those days of holiday fasting and feasting and the pilgrim’s experiences and all the different additions from different cultures particularly through foods and it truly is our holiday, it didn’t come from somewhere else. And it’s larger than just a family gathering, though that’s the core of it. It’s a community thing,” he says. “No where else are they having turkey, and football, and a parade. That’s our formula. No one can take that copyright away from us.”

Harvesting History

The Henry Whitfield State Museum, 248 Old Whitfield Street, Guilford will present Harvesting History on Thanksgiving, Friday, Nov. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Samples of traditional English and Native American foods will include pemmican, pumpkin pie, popcorn, cornbread, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and apple cider. There will be hourly readings of the Pilgrim Cat storybook. On display and available to touch will be reproductions of English and Native American trade items, including clothing, tools, and household implements used by both cultures in daily living. There will be a scavenger hunt that can be done as part of a self-guided tour of the 1639 Whitfield House. Admission is free for children ages 12 and younger, $5 for seniors ages 60 and older, and $6 for everyone else. Parking is free at the museum, located at 248 Old Whitfield Street in Guilford (exit 58 off I-95). More information is available by calling 203-453-2457, emailing, or, visiting Facebook at