This Thanksgiving as millions of Americans settle into a turkey-induced afternoon coma, others will push aside their plates and prepare to partake in that other great American Thanksgiving tradition. The tradition that I speak of is not honoring the memory of the Pilgrims or thanking God for his blessings, although those are also important. The tradition that I speak of is football and beer.
Thanksgiving football games, paired with a cold amber, ale or lager, are a longtime American tradition. In fact, this tradition has its roots in history that predates even the first Thanksgiving turkey. Thanksgiving beer and football goes all the way back to Samoset and Squanto, the Indians who befriended the Pilgrims and taught them how to survive through the harsh New England winters.
On March 16, 1621, an Indian wearing only a loincloth walked into the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, Mass. The book, “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, tells what happened next.
“Welcome!” he suddenly boomed, in a deep, resonant voice. The Pilgrims were too startled to speak. At length they replied with as much gravity as they could muster: “Welcome.”
Their visitor fixed them with a piercing stare. “Have you got any beer?” he asked them in flawless English. If they were surprised before, they were astounded now.
“Beer?” one of them managed.
The Indian nodded.
The Pilgrims looked at one another, then turned back to him. “Our beer is gone. Would you like … some brandy?”
Again the Indian nodded.
The beer-loving Indian was Samoset, one of the few Indians in the New World who spoke English, having learned the language from English fishermen and explorers who visited the New England coast. Samoset soon returned and introduced the colonists to Squanto, another English-speaking native.
Squanto was alone in the world. He had been captured by Captain George Weymouth about 1605 and taken to England, where he spent about 10 years. After returning to North America, he was captured by another Englishman, Thomas Hunt, and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped and returned to his home in 1619, only to find that his entire tribe, the Patuxets, had been wiped out by smallpox.
His meeting with the English gave Squanto a reason to live. “These English were like little babes,” according to “The Light and the Glory.” Squanto taught them to plant corn, catch fish and “helped in a thousand similar ways, teaching them to stalk deer, plant pumpkins among the corn, refine maple syrup from maple trees, discern which herbs were good to eat and good for medicine, and find the best berries….”
It was the Pilgrim gratitude to both God and Squanto that inspired the first Thanksgiving feast. The joyous celebration lasted for three days. It is truly miraculous that the Pilgrims, thousands of miles from England, would encounter two Indians who spoke their native language and who would take the time to teach them to survive in their new home.
If beer was present (or at least sought) at the earliest Thanksgiving, football came a little later. President Lincoln declared the first fixed Thanksgiving holiday in 1863 and the first Thanksgiving football game came only six years later.
The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph chronicled a Thanksgiving Day football game in 1869 between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club. This game came only six weeks after the Rutgers-Princeton game that is widely considered to be America’s first football game.
Yale and Princeton played Thanksgiving Day games from 1876 through 1881 according to Wikipedia. In 1882, the Intercollegiate Football Association began holding a championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day. By the time the NFL was organized in 1920, football was already a Thanksgiving staple.
Thanksgiving is properly a day to reflect on God’s blessings. We are truly fortunate to be heirs to the religious liberty sought by the Pilgrims and to live in this land of plenty. But as you celebrate God’s gifts, don’t feel guilty as you enjoy a football game. And if you want to have a Thanksgiving beer, consider raising your glass to Samoset and Squanto, without whom the story of the Pilgrims might have ended very differently.