Are Americans going cold turkey on Thanksgiving traditions?

Johnny Carson once said “Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday.  People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year.  And then discover once a year is way too often.” He was right.

DOTHANAL, November 22, 2012 —  I started to write a heartwarming Thanksgiving story about a houseful of cooking smells, visiting relatives and good spirits, but remembered that when I was a kid the smells were from my messy cousins, the relatives lived too close to us and the only good spirits came in cocktail glasses. Most of the heartwarming part came from eating overcooked turkey and undercooked sausage stuffing.

To this very day I hate sausage stuffing, not because it causes heartburn, but because I had a cousin who left a second-hand deposit of it on the floor every year. So much for a houseful of cooking smells.

Johnny Carson once said, “Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday.  People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year.  And then discover once a year is way too often.” He was right.

So now that we’re in the age of “new normal,” which includes my raising a seven-year-old granddaughter who thinks I was actually at the first Thanksgiving, I decided to look into how the holiday might have changed over the past few hundred years. You know, since I was just a kid at the Plymouth Bay Colony.  

My first stop was the bookstore where I found that women’s magazines are still mostly of the “old normal” variety and haven’t changed much since my mother brought them home. They still suggest that Thanksgiving preparations should start sometime in April, and their pictures all show holiday dinners served in a large dining room decorated by professionals. It made me feel woefully inadequate to have just a tiny dining room decorated mostly in early American grandkid and pizza. I continued searching.

Cooking shows that I watched on television were very helpful to learn how to cook a turkey, but I already knew that. You grease it up, throw it in a pan and cook it for three days and nights at about 800 degrees and everything comes out really tender. Easy, right?

One show insisted that you had to defrost the bird before cooking, but that seems a huge waste of time. Another showed some ancient Aztec method of burying the carcass in a deep pit, covering it with wood chips and branches, then igniting the whole thing on fire. I have to admit that I nodded off during that program so I’m not entirely sure if it was about a turkey or human sacrifice.

Next I turned to history. Discovering where and how things originate gives clues about why they are what they are today. Ben Franklin wanted to make the turkey the national bird of America instead of the bald eagle. Since turkeys are notoriously stupid, they’ve even been known to drown by staring up at the rain, no one is entirely sure of Ben’s intent. It is possible he meant for it to represent Congress, but that’s just a guess.

George Washington made Thanksgiving a national holiday, Abe Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday of November, and FDR moved the date back a week during the depression to make a longer Christmas shopping season.

As an economic stimulus during his first term, President Obama tried the same thing but came under criticism for trying to move Thanksgiving all the way back to August. Judging from the holiday advertising that year, major retailers apparently decided to go ahead with the president’s plan anyway.

As I continued to research I found lots of interesting facts and tidbits about the history of Thanksgiving, turkeys, shopping and cooking, but no real information about how modern Americans are dealing with the holiday now. I finally decided to take my survey directly to the public and set up a small polling booth at the local mall.

76% of the ten or so people who would talk to me said they still have traditional turkey dinners on Thanksgiving, and a majority of that group said men are not allowed in the kitchen and women are not allowed in the TV room. I’m re-checking those numbers however because it seems many of the respondents were male and over age 50.

Another 14% claimed to be vegetarians or vegans. By the way, on the whole vegans are a very nice group of people and really appreciated the free snacks and beverages I put out. The pepperoni bites were especially popular until someone saw the package they came from. The remaining 10% of respondents told me they celebrate Thanksgiving with roast beef, lobster tails, fresh pate and champagne, and they were quite adamant they had indeed found the truest form of giving thanks. I was inclined to agree but kept focused on staying as objective as possible.

The last part of my research was to visit a native American reservation, known locally as “Cah-see-noh,” to ask Native Peoples directly what Thanksgiving meant to them. It was a short visit and I was carried back to my car by two very nice young men who suggested that I submit my questions to a place I’d never heard of, but which sounded something like “up molasses.”

I assume that means they had an office in Vermont somewhere but that was too far for me to travel to.

The bottom line seems to be that, regardless of what kind of normal they are, people spend Thanksgiving pretty much the same as always. Some have chosen to go the traditional route of having turkey, some have abandoned eating meat, and some obviously don’t have kids because they can afford roast beef and champagne.

No matter how we celebrate Thanksgiving, or how we eat, it’s impressive that after 391 years Americans still respect the holiday as a time to give thanks for the blessings of this great nation. The only ones who really have a problem with Thanksgiving are, you guessed it, the turkeys.

Endnote: The average American eats nearly 14 pounds of turkey in a year. Over 250 million turkeys are raised each year for a total weight of more than 7 billion pounds with total value over $3 billion. Another $5 million worth of turkeys are imported annually from Canada.

The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 by order of William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony. Included in the harvest celebration were the local Wampanoag Indians, who helped the English settlers survive the previous harsh winter.

(Get the backstory on this and other topics at

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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