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Thanksgiving Day and its traditions evolve throughout years
Constant in nearly 400 years is having feast with family
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Shoppers browse through Best Buy's deals on televisions recently at the Gainesville store.

Experts: Black Friday shopping helps local economy

Places to volunteer on Thanksgiving

* Thanksgiving Day Community Meal

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 26

Where: First Baptist Church Banquet Hall, 751 Green St., Gainesville

How to help: Visit Georgia Mountain Food Bank website www.gamountainfoodbank.org to make donations

* Project J.O.Y.

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day

Where: Gainesville F&AM, 621 Lakeshore Drive, Gainesville

How to help: Volunteers can show up at 10 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving to help

* L.A.M.P. Ministries

When: 11 a.m. Nov. 21

Where: 839 Jesse Jewell Parkway, Gainesville

How to help: Visit www.lampga.org to make donations

* Good News at Noon

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day

Where: 979 Davis St., Gainesville

How to help: Visit www.goodnewsatnoon.org for information

When Dana Chapman thinks of Thanksgiving, one image comes to mind. It is a 1943 Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom From Want,” which was part of a series of four called “The Four Freedoms.”

In the painting, a grandmotherly figure flanked by a grandfatherly fellow is setting down a turkey on a white, tablecloth-covered table. Seated around it is an array of family members.

For many, this image personifies one meaning of Thanksgiving with family and friends around a table, enjoying each other’s company and drooling over the food.

At least it does for Chapman, executive director of The Guest House Senior Health and Activities Center in Gainesville. It also reminds her of a favorite Thanksgiving Day tradition.

“My tradition is eating the food (my husband) cooks for me,” she said, noting he is the one who prepares the traditional turkey and its trimmings. “He cooks and I clean up.”

While sharing a large meal for lunch or dinner on Thanksgiving is on nearly every person’s agenda, the rest of the day’s celebrations are different for some. Some spend it with family. Others spend it volunteering. And some spend part of the day at stores, either shopping for gifts or serving the customers who shop.

No matter how people spend Thanksgiving Day or even the day after (Black Friday), it is quite a departure from the original intention of the holiday.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

According to one expert, the primary purpose of Thanksgiving was to celebrate the bounty of the fall harvest. Of course, the first Thanksgiving “technically” took place in the spring.

“The Pilgrims had a day of Thanksgiving because they made it through the first winter and there were still people alive,” said Eugene Van Sickle, associate professor of history and associate department head of history at the University of North Georgia Dahlonega campus. “But what we associate Thanksgiving with — being the fall festival — took place in 1621. But it doesn’t look like what we imagine it to look like.”

The history professor explained Americans have mythologized image of the first Thanksgiving, courtesy of a 19th century painting by Jean Leon Jerome Ferris. The image portrays the Pilgrim men wearing large, black hats and big belt buckles and women clad in their modest dresses with aprons and bonnets mingling with the Native Americans. A house can be seen in the background and a table and chairs are in the forefront.

“That image doesn’t exist in the 17th century,” Van Sickle said, pointing out a table and chairs in that time period would be a luxury.

She said the Plymouth colonists most likely used a stump as a place to set plates. The food would have been served out of a pot similar to a large cauldron.

And the biggest difference between a modern Thanksgiving and the 17th century version would be the food. While the current generation feasts on turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, a collection of casseroles and pies, the 1621 fare included corn or maize, beans and available meat.

“Duck would have been more likely,” Van Sickle said. “Deer, for sure.”

Eels or mollusks may have made it to the feast as well.

“Cranberry sauce didn’t exist ... and there would be no sweet potato casserole,” she said.

Thanksgiving also was not limited to a single set day in November.

“Based on two (written) accounts, it lasted three days,” Van Sickle said.

EVOLUTION OF THANKSGIVING

As the years passed, Thanksgiving or harvest festivals were not celebrated on an annual basis. In actuality, celebrating the fall harvest occurred only when it was plentiful.

However, almost 250 years after the Pilgrims first account of a fall harvest celebration, it became an official national holiday.

On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced the nation would celebrate an official day of Thanksgiving on Nov. 26. The speech followed the shift of the tide of the Civil War, in which the Union was gaining control. In early July, the Union Army won the Battle of Gettysburg and then toppled the Confederate control in Vicksburg, Miss.

“The war was horrible and incredibly bloody up to this point,” Van Sickle said. “So Lincoln proclaims this holiday and that we are going to give thanks and praise at a national level.”

Thanksgiving, however, was not Lincoln’s original idea. It harkened back to when George Washington was president in 1789 and called for an official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” according to www.history.com/topics/plymouth.

Van Sickle added that even during the Revolutionary War, soldiers would have a day of thanksgiving after winning a battle.

Thanksgiving’s date, however, did not remain at the last Thursday of November. At the tail end of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date to the third Thursday in November, hoping to boost the economy by providing shoppers and merchants a few extra days to conduct business between the Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“A lot of retailers don’t move into the profit column until holiday shopping,” Van Sickle said. “So when FDR was president, he gave them an extra week of holiday shopping.”

Van Sickle estimates that may mark the introduction of Thanksgiving being associated with more commercialism than the original harvest festival.

However, the date of Thanksgiving was changed again in 1941. Congress insisted the holiday be permanently set as the fourth Thursday of November and it has stayed since.

MODERN THANKSGIVING                        

While the Thanksgiving fare and date have changed from its original beginnings in the United States, one constant has remained the same: Having a large feast with family and friends.

North Hall Middle School teacher Michele Hood travels to a quiet beach each year with her family for a few days. They spend time playing games, fishing, sharing meals and laughing.

“On Thanksgiving Day after lunch, we take a boat ride to our favorite spot, share stories and give thanks to those special people in our lives,” she said. “I love our Thanksgiving time. It is a time to pause the hustle of the year and focus on true blessings.”

Dave Dellinger, commander of the American Legion Post. No. 7 in Gainesville, tries to spend time with his two brothers and two sisters on Thanksgiving, but distance separates them.

“That’s what Thanksgiving should be about — family and friends,” he said, noting he spends the day with his daughter and grandson.

“They don’t like turkey, so we have duck,” Dellinger said.

North Hall Middle School teacher Kathy Mellette uses Thanksgiving as a time to congregate with her three boys and simplify her life.

“Thanksgiving helps me refocus and reframe,” Mellette said. “(It provides the) opportunity to remember the many sources of joy given to me.”

Thomas Ramirez, shelter manager for Good News at Noon, believes in sharing and spreading joy at Thanksgiving.

“I tell my family that we should do something for somebody,” he said. “This is where the real joy comes from.”

He explained Good News at Noon opens its doors on Thanksgiving and invites everyone in for a meal.

“Our ideal Thanksgiving is to make sure no one is lonely at that time of year,” he said. “And at Good News at Noon, God has given us plenty. We want to make sure they have these blessings.”

And Thanksgiving started out as celebrating the bountiful blessings of a harvest.

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