Turkey schmurkey - Pass the duck! At the White House, a holiday's rough passage

By Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, November 26, 1987; 8:00 AM

Who could be so un-American, so politically insensitive, so plain silly as to turn a calm and comfortable national holiday like Thanksgiving into a cause for commotion?

Presidents of the United States, that's who.

Nowadays, first-family Thanksgivings are uncontroversial gatherings around tables full of traditional fare. Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie or, in Mrs. Reagan's case, pecan pumpkin pie. But Thanksgiving, that gentlest of celebrations, the holiday that O. Henry described as the only "purely American" one, had some rough beginnings at the White House.

For generations after the Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, sons of Massachusetts commemorated "Forefathers' Day" on Dec. 22 -- the date of the landing. It was an annual New England ritual through most of the 17th and 18th centuries; in 1644, it was even celebrated in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam with pigs roasting on spits in the streets.

But it was a Virginian, President George Washington, who issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation to the whole of the infant nation. He made it at the request of both houses of the first Congress, on Oct. 3, 1789, just a bit more than five months after his inauguration.

Washington knew, of course, that English settlers had arrived in his own state of Virginia more than a decade before those at Plymouth, but he made no mention of that fact, or indeed of the long-established New England "forefathers" feasting tradition. Instead, his message was a carefully framed proposal for a day to give thanks to God for "the favorable interpositions of His providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war," and for "civil and religious liberty ... the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge ... and the increase of science." The day he suggested was Thursday, Nov. 26.

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© 1987 The Washington Post Company