The Longform Guide to Thanksgiving

Wild turkeys, crazy relatives, and beloved rituals.

Gobble gobble!
Gobble gobble!

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Crush Point
John Seabrook • The New Yorker • February 2011

Is there a way to keep the Black Friday crowds safe?

The origins of the term Black Friday are obscure. Some think that it was first used by the police in Philadelphia to describe the snarled traffic and sidewalk hassles that came with the day after Thanksgiving and crowds arriving for the city’s annual Army-Navy game. Others have defined Black Friday as the day that merchants’ balance sheets crossed over into the black. Either way, it is now a de-facto national shopping holiday. On TV, images of people racing through the aisles of stores for sale-priced items, in a sort of American Pamplona, have become as much a part of the day after Thanksgiving as leftovers. Shoppers get discounts, programmers get some lively content for a slow news day, and retailers get free publicity: a good deal for everyone, except for the clerks who have to work that day, breaking up fights among shoppers and cleaning up the mess left behind.

Give Thanks? Science Supersized Your Turkey
Alexis Madrigal • Wired • November 2008

How science changed our holiday feast.

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner reflects the enormous amount of change that foods and the food systems that produce them have undergone, particularly over the last 50 years. Nearly all varieties of crops have experienced large genetic changes as big agriculture companies hacked their DNA to provide greater hardiness and greater yields. The average pig, turkey, cow and chicken have gotten larger at an astounding rate, and they grow with unprecedented speed. A modern turkey can mature to a given weight at twice the pace of its predecessors.

Native Intelligence
Charles Mann • Smithsonian • December 2005

The history of the first Thanksgiving: The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn’t enough to save them.

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with “some ninety men,” Winslow later recalled, most of them with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

All the while, Bradford wrote, Tisquantum “sought his own ends and played his own game.” Covertly he tried to persuade other Wampanoag that he could better protect them against the Narragansett than Massasoit. In case of attack, Tisquantum claimed, he could respond with as many Indian troops—plus the Pilgrims. To advance his case, Tisquantum told other Indians that the foreigners had “buried in the ground” a cache of the agent that had caused the epidemic and that he could manipulate them into unleashing it.

Home for the Holidays
Chris Radant • Boston Phoenix • Nov 1990

On heading home for Thanksgiving.

T’was the night before leaving for Pittsburgh, and Mom called to inform me that it was very cold there. I hid my shock well, though I lived in Boston and it was the end of November. I assured her I’d bring a coat. She said she had called four times before, and hung up when she heard, “that answering machine pick up.” In five weeks, it will be 1990, except at Mom and Dad’s house, where 1956 will never end. Before she could say “See you tomorrow,” Dad interrupted to remind me to get to the airport half an hour before my flight. He said they would be waiting for me “with painted breath.”

The next morning would begin the four hellish days spent with my family. Ninety-six hours jam-packed with television, eating and being treated like an idiot.

Michael P. Branch • Orion  • Nov/Dec 2011

A Thanksgiving lesson in forgiveness.

For many people, Thanksgiving is about bringing together family and friends; for some, it is centered around the ancient autumnal harvest festival; for others, it is an opportunity to count and express our most precious blessings; for yet others, it is a holiday devoted to copious amounts of football and alcohol. I believe deeply in all these versions, but for me Thanksgiving is very much about the pardoning of turkeys. The tradition of the presidential turkey pardon is wonderfully rife with distortion, ambiguity, and error—as all good stories should be—but what is most perplexing about this bizarre ritual is our uncertainty about its origins.

Revenge of the Turkeys
Taylor Plimpton • The New Yorker  Nov 2012

When turkeys attack.

Looking over my shoulder at my research, Lizzy asked me, “Are you doing a smear piece on turkeys?” “Yes,” I replied, “I guess I am.”

But in spite of my desire to dig up the dirt on these fowl, I could not ignore the other side of the story: the much more considerable evils done not by turkeys, but to them. Even the two turkeys pardoned each Thanksgiving by the President have to go through an unenviable selection process, which Obama described in 2010 as “strutting their stuff before a panel of judges with an eclectic mix of music playing in the background, kind of like a turkey version of ‘Dancing with the Stars’”—truly a fate worse than death, especially considering that the two birds spared in 2010 (Apple and Cider) died within the year anyway, having been bred for the dinner table and not for free-roaming the gardens at Mount Vernon. Monday brought the sad news that Peace, one of the two turkeys pardoned in 2011, passed away because of an illness. He’s survived by his companion, Liberty, but presumably not for long.

The Game of a Lifetime
Mark Bowden • Sports Illustrated • Dec 2002

In a St. Louis suburb, the Turkey Day high school football game is more than just an old-fashioned rivalry.

There are places in America where football is taken more seriously, and there are Thanksgiving Day high school football rivalries that are older than the 96-year-old series between Webster Groves and Kirkwood (box, page 82), but nowhere is the tradition so ingrained in the lives of generations of two communities, and nowhere is it more redolent of America’s all-but-extinct small-town culture. Turkey Day has featured the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of players who battled for the black-and-orange-togged Statesmen or the red-and-white Pioneers. The local radio station, KFNS, sells tens of thousands of dollars in advertising for its broadcast of the event. Shops and restaurants cater to the football crowds and the hundreds of family reunions the game prompts every year. The friendly rivalry shapes relationships among the two towns’ residents all year round, and not just among the teenagers. Turkey Day is the cornerstone of the two communities’ identities.

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