Today, Thanksgiving is all about the bird, but the holiday was created by President Abraham Lincoln after a failed attempt at secession and civil war left the nation in need of reunification. Though the real first Thanksgiving took place in Virginia, history and holidays were altered from south to north and ham to turkey in an effort to heal an angry nation under God and at the dinner table.
At our house, the holiday was altered yet again when my sons and I tried to set the record straight and ended up with a smorgasbord, vegetarian holiday instead. When we talk turkey, we really have a story to tell.
Every November, my sons begin to talk about the year they and Mom tried to get then-President George W. Bush to pardon a pig instead of a turkey to make up for Mr. Lincoln’s choice. We got a mayor to ride a Harley hog, a principal to kiss a pig, 6,000 school children to sign a petition and I, the mommy, got head-butted by the Commander-in-Chief in front of my kids and the Associated Press, thus altering our holiday meal and perception of national holidays forever after.
In 2007, we moved to the south, to Norfolk, Va., from New Jersey, and the kids came home from school with this tale of how Virginia was the real location of the first Thanksgiving and dinner should be ham and not turkey.
Horrified at what I was sure was revisionist history, I set out to prove the teacher wrong. I learned that I was wrong. The history books were wrong. The Macy’s Day parade and Butterball and Charlie Brown, White House turkey pardon in the Rose Garden – all wrong!
The first English colonists to offer up their prayer of Thanksgiving stood on the James River banks in Berkeley, Va., on Dec. 4, 1619, almost two whole years before the Pilgrim feast. Their charter spelled out that they must give thanks upon arrival and keep that day as a perpetual, annual day of Thanksgiving. Those Virginians had a meager meal of ham or bacon from their stores and possibly some oysters dug from the James River, not turkey.
The kids and I began a campaign for a “Pig Pardon in the Rose Garden,” and I wrote a little story that briefly became a book called “Pardon Me. It’s Ham, Not Turkey!” wherein a piggy named Ginny (short for Virginia) gets her pardon. Our statewide petition got 6,000 signatures from children and then-President George W. Bush re-routed his Thanksgiving plans to come instead to Berkeley Plantation in W.Va., where he gave the nod to the true birthplace of the holiday.
We were invited and given a row for our family to see him speak.
Stepping off Marine One, his assistant came through the crowd and handed me an envelope from the president with a letter to the pig, thanking her and everyone for bringing the historical information to his attention. The kids, who were with me, were deeply impressed... with the helicopter.
Afterward, the boys and I went up and met the president. I thanked him for coming but said the kids were sad he was not publicly pardoning Ginny.
“Ginny? Ginny?” the President momentarily puzzled. Then he beamed a huge grin, hooted a laugh and shouted, “Oh, the pig! I loved that!” Secret Service swarmed us as the President held my hand up in a victory salute and then took me by the shoulders and thunked his forehead to mine several times in rapid succession.
As we walked away, Ian could not contain himself and stopped every single person in our path to announce, “My mom was head-butted by THE PRESIDENT!”
Again, we were suddenly awash in Secret Service as an agent bent double to young Ian, then age 12, and said, “Son. That was not a head-butt. That was the ‘Presidential forehead touch.' He does that with people he really likes.” Ian nodded mutely but, once out of earshot, continued to spread the unvarnished word.
If you’re wondering how the history got lost in the first place, the turkey became America’s urban holiday dinner legend because the winning side tends to write – or in this case, re-write – the history books. Shortly after the Civil War, Lincoln was looking for some way to reunify a nation that had just suffered a Civil War and secession attempt. Pause to reflect on how history repeats itself.
A New England author, keen to celebrate her state, was on a mission to create a holiday commemorating the Pilgrims and what she believed to be the nation’s first day of thanksgiving. Although it was pointed out at the time that Virginia was the first, it would not do to reward a southern state that had been disloyal to the union. So it became a Pilgrim feast.
I am going to mention here, for President Barack Obama to take note since history seems to be repeating itself, that maybe this year, he might consider adding a small pig to the pardon in the Rose Garden?
In the end, however, we all fell in love with Ginny the pig, have met many turkeys along the way as we visited farms and petting zoos and so, ever after, have had a smorgasbord Thanksgiving that is largely vegetarian.
I will say now what I said then: As fun and frivolous as a turkey or pig pardon by the president may seem, this act of mercy in time of strife serves to remind Americans that no matter what their political opinions or issues, they are still thankful to be one nation, giving thanks to a higher power, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
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