Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Videos for the Classroom: “Jerky Turkey” (1945)

The days before a holiday tend to be perfect fodder for videos, at least for killing time.  Yet today’s video combines two things I love: Thanksgiving and the war years in America.

Perhaps the most unsung genius in American animation was Tex Avery.  Starting in Warner Brothers in the 1930s, he moved cartoons away from the sappy, childlike airs of Walt Disney into the mature, sophisticated humor of adults.  He introduced characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, characters with real foibles and charm (and just as thoroughly marketable as Mickey Mouse) as well as fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue and gags that played to the fears and stresses of adult life.

Avery’s greatest achievements occurred when he moved to MGM in the 1940s.  Through the forties and fifties, Avery produced some of the most groundbreaking, sophisticated and hilarious cartoon shorts in history.  His innovative use of language, sight gags, and modern sensibility created a body of work that still leaves people in stitches–more so adults than children.

Since it is Thanksgiving, the Neighborhood is presenting Tex Avery’s 1945 classic “Jerky Turkey.” In this comic send-up of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, an unnamed Pilgrim attempts to shoot a wisecracking turkey that bears an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Durante.

“Jerky Turkey” is packed with discussion points for the social studies classroom.  World War II, and Franksgiving, are deeply referenced throughout the film.  The Mayflower (complete with a gas ration stamp), for example, is shown built by wartime supplier Henry Kaiser and accompanied by a US Naval Squadron.  Plymouth is divided between Democrats and  Republicans, a nod to the Thanksgiving debacle of years past.  Ration lines for cigarettes, billboards warning against unnecessary travel–even the obligatory offensive Native American caricature is included.

(This particular showing is the full version, which has a quite offensive use of the term “Half-breed” that is edited out of TBS and Cartoon Network showings.)

Besides being a hilarious film, “Jerky Turkey” shows how Hollywood used the harsh realities of war in a humorous way, especially during the holidays.  Enjoy!

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The Story of “Franksgiving”; or When Bad Things Happen to Good Holidays

We can always count on the federal government to come up with insane solutions to our problems.

Budget deficit? Tighten belts on all forms of spending except defense, which gets a blank check to fund whatever piece-of-crap technology they want (provided the appropriate Congressman gets his cut).

Farm prices too low? Dole out generous checks to farmers for doing nothing—just make sure to give them a fancy name like “subsidy” instead of “sit-on-your-ass check.”

Terrorist threat? Defy historical expectations and start not one, but TWO land wars in Asia, because that worked out so well for Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler.

In 1939, America again resorted to a hare-brained experiment to resolve a national crisis: an experiment with a holiday. For three years, Thanksgiving would be the center of a political and economic experiment that split families, upended governments and drove political debate far in excess of its results.

That solution was “Franksgiving”, one of the greatest blunders of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

By 1939, the nation had gone through two economic downturns. The first, of course, was the 1929 stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1937, Americans pinned their hopes on the slew of government programs created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. For a while, at least, things were looking up. Banks had stabilized, unemployment bottomed out, businesses were growing again. By all indicators, the economy was back to what it was prior to the 1929 crash.

Then the bottom fell out.

By 1937, things were going so well that his advisors suggested that Roosevelt start to cut back on some of the programs—an incredible case of bad timing. The massive cutbacks in the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration coincided with a sharp economic downturn in the summer of 1937. The reasons for the “Roosevelt Recession” are still hotly debated. What’s certain is that during the 13 months of the recession, unemployment, production, and spending sunk to 1933 levels: the low point of the Depression.

Roosevelt tried everything to revive the economy. A new wave of anti-trust cases opened up, led by Thurman Arnold at the Department of Justice. Crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters as well as farm subsidies were pushed through Congress in February 1938. In April, a massive spending bill rolled back the cuts made the previous year—to the tune of $5 billion.

Nothing worked as the administration hoped. To make matters worse, Lew Hahn and Harry Hopkins took a look at the 1939 calendar and shat in their pants.

Hahn, the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, noticed an unfortunate accident in the holiday shopping season. Since the Civil War, the Thanksgiving holiday (NOT an official holiday yet) was customarily declared by the President for the last Thursday in November. In 1939, November had 5 Thursdays, so that Thanksgiving would fall on November 30th, leaving only 20 days for the holiday shopping season. Hahn immediately notified Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins, one the New Deal “masterminds”, and they both made a mad dash for the President.

In Roosevelt’s mind, moving Thanksgiving made logical sense. It was never a national holiday fixed into law, after all: each President since Lincoln had simply followed Abe’s lead and declared the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Moving the holiday was his prerogative, and nothing less than the future of the New Deal was at stake.

Besides, the American people won’t mind changing the date of a day that to most is simply a massive gorgefest, right?

Franklin Delano, how wrong you were.

In two separate decrees, on August 31 and October 31, 1939, Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be moved up one week earlier for 1939 and 1940. In his proclamations, he reminded the American people of the non-official nature of the holiday, its history as a presidential custom, and the economic need for a longer shopping season.

America was having none of it. For three years, the United States was a divided nation every November.

Since Roosevelt’s decrees used the “moral authority” of the President, they had no legal enforcement. It was up to the individual states to adopt the new date as law, along with the new allotment of holiday time for state and municipal employees. The then-48 states in the Union split almost perfectly along party lines. 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, voted to switch to the new date. 22 states, especially the then-Republican stronghold of New England, decided to keep the original date. Three states (Mississippi, Colorado and Texas) split the difference, and made both dates holidays.

Even before adoption by the state’s, the plan aroused nationwide opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s GOP opponent in the 1936 election, stated that his declaration to move Thanksgiving was

“another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

Strong words, and this from a MODERATE Republican. Today, Landon would be bosom buds with Nancy Pelosi.

The change upset the lives of millions of Americans. Flight schedules, train reservations, and hotel accommodations all had to be readjusted to the new date. Printers, especially calendar manufacturers, went ballistic since their entire runs were now obsolete. College football programs, which depended on the Thanksgiving game for their season finales, now had to abruptly adjust their schedules: most conferences forbad games played after Thanksgiving. Colleges, schools and institutes make a frantic change in their vacation plans. Some students left school on one Thanksgiving and came home to nothing, since their home state kept the other date.

The dates even acquired names in popular culture. The earlier date was called “Democratic Thanksgiving” and the traditional date became “Republican Thanksgiving.” It was easy to tell the neighbor’s political leanings through the collective aroma of turkeys on one week or the next.

The earlier date was soon given a name befitting a monstrous bureaucratic decision. Atlantic City mayor Thomas Taggert, clearly noting the culprit in all this, derisively dubbed the earlier date “Franksgiving” after its unfortunate founder.

Nationally, even though more Democrats than Republicans approved the change, fully 62% of the American people disapproved of the date—and they made their voices heard for three years.

Thousands of letters poured into the White House, mostly with negative feedback on Roosevelt’s decision. Sometimes the letters are downright heartbreaking. Consider Eleanor Blydenburgh, a student from Connecticut attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn:

“Our directors announced that our school vacation would begin on the twenty-third of November and last until the twenty-sixth because New York, being your home state, is abiding by your decision. However, where I come from, Connecticut, they’ll be observing it on the thirtieth of November as usual. Really, this situation makes my heart ache because I love our Thanksgiving Holidays as much if not a bit more than our Christmas Holidays.”

Most of the letters were mean gripes about the inconvenience of the change. One particular letter, from Shelby Bennett in West Virginia, gets kudos from the Neighborhood for its oozing snarkiness:

“Mr. President:

I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks.

Now, there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:

1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday;
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas;
3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday;
4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime;
5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.”

For anyone familiar with the Potomac in the late 1930s, that last one should’ve been treated like a death threat.

Yet the greatest pox upon the Franksgiving experiment came in a Commerce Department survey on May 20, 1941. It found that the change in Thanksgiving caused no significant impact on holiday sales. The experiment was a complete failure.

The administration, seeing more important priorities on the horizon (priorities named Hitler and Tojo), decided to quietly push through a joint resolution through Congress, and signed on December 26, 1941. It stated that Thanksgiving was designated an official holiday to be observed on the fourth November of every calendar year. From 1942 to 1956, each of the states adopted the new standard, albeit haphazardly. Texas lollygagged until the end, probably to give their football teams one more weekend on the gridiron.

So what did we learn from “Franksgiving”?

Roosevelt’ s holiday experiment was well within his rights. It was completely legal, since the holiday was only enacted through a presidential proclamation. Furthermore, at least on paper, there was a logical reason to it: more time to shop could possibly stimulate the economy.
Yet having the legal authority to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to do it. Barack Obama has the legal right to punch in the launch codes into the nuclear football and send our ICBMs into central Asia, but he’s not fool enough to do something like that.

Like a nuclear attack, messing with a holiday has extensive collateral damage, though not as bad as vaporized relatives and crippling nuclear cancers. America was so used to the old holiday that its own institutions adjusted to a day that, in reality, could’ve been changed at will. Roosevelt’s good intentions caused three years of chaos, from the train station to the college campus and to the football field.

Franksgiving would never get us out of the Depression: World War II did. It took long, bloody conflicts on two continents to realize that certain things shouldn’t be monkeyed with.

It was more important to be thankful than to worry about the day when we could be thankful.

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Videos for the Classroom: National Geographic Presents Thanksgiving Unstuffed

It’s that time again, when the classrooms fill with Pilgrim hats, feathers in the hair and massive pageants celebrating the “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621.

Last year, the Neighborhood spent a series debunking the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving.  This year, we’re taking a lighter approach to the holidays.  National Geographic produced a fun half-hour program, Thanksgiving Unstuffed, which combines history, culture, and science to explore the holiday in most depth.  I found the beginning bit about cooking a turkey most interesting–the science of why the breast always dries out, no matter how much gravy you drown it in.

Have fun with this in your classrooms.  Next up will be a piece on Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial tinkering with Thanksgiving, the infamous “Franksgiving.” Stay tuned.

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 1: Thanksgiving

Freedom From Want (1943) By Norman Rockwell -- could it also read "Freedom from wanting clear arteries"?

Let’s begin with a holiday that’s all American, wholesome, family-oriented, and brings out the best in us.  Or, conversely, a stressful, be grudgingly multiethnic, polyglot, emotionally charged day that get us longing for tomorrow.

Super Bowl Sunday.

Sorry, as a Giants fan, it is wishful thinking.  Of course I mean Thanksgiving, the annual late November ritual where we give thanks to God/Yahweh/G*d/Allah/the Force/etc. for all the good blessings of the year.

This is, obviously, followed by gorging on his divine good bounty until we get the coronary that will ultimately send us to our maker.  God has a funny way of accepting gratitude.

He also has a sense of humor in concocting the myths behind this celebration.  As children, we have all been drilled in the mantra of the Pilgrims.  Let’s recap for those unfamiliar:

In 1620, 102 God-fearing English souls—dressed as if from a Rembrandt canvas—set sail on that grandiose vessel the Mayflower to seek a land where they can worship God in their own way (as long as nobody else says otherwise).  They land on Plymouth Rock (which must’ve done wonders for the ship’s undercarriage) and began the hard existence of life.  The first winter was brutal and cold, and it was not until they met the kindly “Indian” Squanto, who showed them the wonders of maize and hunting, that the little colony was spared.  In 1621, to give thanks for their good fortune, the Pilgrims invite the Wampanoag, led by the kind Massasoit, to enjoy a bountiful meal, complete with turkeys raised with pop-up timers.  They lived together as friends (cue the smallpox blankets) and we have celebrated ever since.

Please wipe your feet to avoid tracking the bullshit on the carpet.

Okay, so like so many things, Thanksgiving is a lie teachers told you.  Not entirely, but it is the case here.  Let’s take this myth and break it apart piece by piece.

Myth # 1—The Pilgrims came to seek religious freedom.

In the 17th Century, there was no such thing—not in Europe, America, or anywhere else.  Even swinging Holland, known for its tolerance, had an official Calvinist religion; one which viewed outsiders as an irritant best avoided. 

The Pilgrims were no exception: they were so radical even Puritans avoided them—that’s fucking radical.

The Pilgrims practiced Separatism, which meant they wanted to completely separate from the Church of England and establish their own theocratic hell in the land of their choosing.  This differed from the Puritans, who wanted the Church of England to be “purified” into their theocratic hell, which was better than the Anglican theocratic hell, which was better than the Lutheran theocratic hell, which was light years better than the idolatrous Catholic theocratic hell and the (God Forbid) Muslim theocratic hell.

They can all go to hell, for all I care.

Anyway, the Pilgrims were getting persecuted, that’s true.  To avoid English rule, they did establish themselves in Leiden, the Netherlands—also true.  Yet here’s the second part of the story: The Pilgrims ultimately left for America for two reasons.  First, to establish a hell as described above.  Second, to make sure their kids don’t grow up Dutch: speaking a phlegm-based language looking like a Vermeer portrait and being all tolerant and such. 

Myth # 2—everybody on the Mayflower were Pilgrims who wanted religious freedom.

There were, in fact, non-Separatists on the voyage, along with the captain and crew of the ship.  Only 27 of the 70 adults on the voyage were Separatists.  The rest were in no mood for Jesus.  On the contrary, their mood was for a quick buck.  Some came to establish a homestead in the New World.  Others came to find the gold that the bozos in Virginia seemed to miss.  All these people would chafe at the Pilgrims’ “religious freedom”—which would actually cause resentment and exits from the colony.

Myth # 3—the Pilgrims were heading to Virginia, but were blown off course.

This is kind of true.  The Mayflower was blown off course, but the course was not present-day Virginia.  The Virginia Company claimed the land north of Jamestown including the mouth of the Hudson River.  The ultimate destination of the Pilgrims would be present-day New York. 

In a weird twist of irony, in 1619 the Dutch West India Company offered to settle the Pilgrims in New Netherland, their colony in North America located on the exact same spot of their supposed landing.  The Pilgrim leaders declined, wishing to not further the “corruption” of their youth with Dutch influences.  Delft tiles, prim black clothing and actually making money doing business is a scary thing, I suppose.

Myth # 3—the Natives welcomed the Pilgrims with open arms.

The Native tribes were suspicious of these newcomers, and with good reason.  Between 1617 and 1619 English fishermen in the area exposed the local people to smallpox, which devastated the numbers of Narragansett, Pawtuxet and Wampanoag populations.  Furthermore, the Pilgrims stole corn stores from villages that were deserted due to the disease, which couldn’t have made the locals pleased.

In fact, the Wampanoag were actually looking for a strategic advantage in befriending the newcomers.  They still outnumbered the new settlers, which meant that any false move and they could quickly dispatch them, as they weren’t much of a threat.  The settlers’ weakened condition after the winter of 1620-1621 further tipped the cards in Massasoit’s favor.  Also, Massasoit knew that these people could be a powerful ally in their constant battles with neighboring tribes such as the Narragansett, the Pequot and the Mohegan—who obviously had not yet learned the pacifying power of all-night gambling.

Over the years after 1621, and especially after Massasoit died, the Plymouth colony would take advantage of the Wampanoag to gain more land for the ever-increasing numbers of settlers that were arriving from England.  By the time Massasoit’s son Metacomet, or King Philip, took over the tribe in 1662, enough was enough.  The subsequent war, King Philip’s War, would ravage New England between 1675 and 1676, and would be among the bloodiest of native conflicts in North America.

Massasoit should’ve gotten that drumstick, after all.

Myth # 4—the first Thanksgiving was a mutual celebration between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag to celebrate their mutual good fortune.

For this, we’ll turn to two primary sources.  The following is an account from a 1621 book entitled Mourt’s Relation, or A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England.  It was primarily written by Edward Winslow, a Separatist who did much of the communication between the colony and the Wampanoag.  This is his account:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” – Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1621)

According to Winslow, the whole celebration happened by accident.  The Pilgrims went out hunting for their harvest celebration, found the Wampanoag wandering in their midst, and basically made an impromptu invitation to dine with them.  The three-day event was full of entertaining, feasting, and hunting—apparently the Wampanoag brought five deer to the event.

Here’s another, probably better known account.  The following comes from the now-legendary 1647 work Of Plimoth Plantation, written by acclaimed Pilgrim leader William Bradford.  Edward Winslow was Bradford’s assistant in communicating with the native tribes.  This is Bradford’s account:

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.” – William Bradford. Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Bradford writes of abundance and good fortune, yet no mention of a celebration.  This good fortune may even be contrived—this was published some 26 years after the fact, so Bradford’s eye may be a bit more glassed over. 

The point is the celebratory feast we envision as the first “Thanksgiving” may have simply been an English harvest feast that was crashed by the Wampanoag.  Or it may have never really happened at all.  Nonetheless, whatever happened, it bore almost no relation to the modern holiday, which leads to the last myth.

Myth # 5—America has been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since the Pilgrims.

To honor the real founder of the holiday, kids should be wearing beards and tall hats instead of feathers and buckled shoes.  

Although individual Presidents have proclaimed days of Thanksgiving from time to time, and some states even creating their own Thanksgiving holiday, it wasn’t until the Civil War that a national holiday was created.  In 1863, Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of prayer and Thanksgiving.  Given the national mood of the time, it was sorely needed.

Yet it didn’t stop future leaders from monkeying with the date.

Franklin Roosevelt, in an attempt to stimulate the Depression-era economy, proposed moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939.  Republicans would have none of it, resisting Democratic moves to sully old Abe’s Thanksgiving in the name of economic recovery.  For a number of years, there were two Thanksgivings, depending on your political party.  The mix-up was straightened out by the time we entered World War II in 1941.

You may be asking yourself, “Mr. D, how do we know the information you’re giving us isn’t bullshit?”

Good question.  Here’s some links to back up my bullshit, with more information:

Plimoth Plantation is one of the few historical re-enactments that cut through the crap pretty well.  Their work is thoroughly researched and documented, and actively strives to provide a balanced look at life in the early colony.  Look at their Education sublink for their online education center which features their “You are the Historian” section, which kids will love.

The Plymouth Colony entry in Research Starters from Scholastic provides a great overview of the topic, followed by links to articles and to other websites for further study.

The Plymouth Colony Archives Project was a historical archaeology project started at the University of Virginia, but now housed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  It is a magnificent repository of primary records about the colony and its settlers.

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Mr. D’s official Guide to the Holidays—an Introduction

The holidays are among the most dangerous time of year for a teacher.

It isn’t enough that you have shopping, decorating, cooking, wrapping and holiday card writing for your own family.  Now you have 25 other little minions on your to-do list—and no socks, please.  Then there’s the recycling of 10-year old garlands and a 70’s era Santa Claus to make the room look “festive” and get the administrators off your back.  The whole room needs to be scrubbed and cleaned for the winter recess, and the regs don’t allow you to use the ready-made labor force of your 25 cherubs.

If this were not enough, there may be an ACLU lawyer ready to pounce on you at any moment.  Still calling it “Christmas vacation?”  Yitzhak, Abdul and Ahmad X would like to have a word with you.

Not only are the holidays a strain on your time, finances, and sanity.  They provide the yearly arena for the most knock-down, drag-out fights about the separation of church and state.  Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, even Ramadan (depending on the year) fight for your attention on the holiday table.

At least one town in America has a good media-fueled circus over a community nativity scene, a menorah, a kinara or some other important object that pisses off somebody—anybody.  The nativity scene features characters straight out of a Nazi propaganda film.  Punks are stealing the bulbs off the menorah again, even after night 4 when the four Jewish families in town couldn’t care less.  There are complaints from the three Black families that the Kwanzaa kinara isn’t as tall as the menorah with the missing bulbs.  Muslims just want to nibble on something—even if it means ticking off everybody to do it.

Mr. D has your solution.  This holiday season, make sure all your celebrations are equally worthless.

I’ve found that the best way to defuse a situation is to make sure that everyone is equally pissed off.  To that end, we here at the Neighborhood are providing some helpful talking points to give you a good laugh—and give your more zealous colleagues some serious heartburn.

Each week, we’ll be skewering a new holiday—and nothing is sacred.  Was Mary simply covering up the fact she was “knocked up”?  Weren’t the Maccabees fighting a foregone conclusion: Hebrew itself was Hellenized, after all?  Does an artificial holiday with cornstalks and dashikis really make up for the 400-year screw job received by African Americans?  Doesn’t Ramadan contribute to the irrational nature of the Middle East?  I’m delusional without a morning coffee.

Please return for our first installment next week: Thanksgiving.

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