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Of Thanksgiving Origins and Your Family's Health

Since Thanksgiving is a day that families have the time to talk, it makes sense that the United States Surgeon General proclaimed Thanksgiving Day 2004 as the first annual National Family History Day. As part of this initiative, families are encouraged to document family medical conditions.


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Dressing up as a Pilgrim or an Indian, eating a mini-Thanksgiving feast, hearing tales about the Mayflower, that's how many of us spent each November during our early school days. Because of these experiences most people are aware of the origins of Thanksgiving but few are aware of the history behind the American holiday that we celebrate today. Although Thanksgiving had been celebrated as a nation since George Washington's time, a national holiday did not exist until the time of Abraham Lincoln.

It was Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879), an American writer who campaigned for 40 years amongst mayors, governors, and five presidents in an effort to get a national holiday declared. Although virtually unknown today, Sarah was responsible for many forward-thinking ideas such as public playgrounds for children, day care for working mothers, and she was an editor for one of the first women's magazines, Godey's Lady's Book. She is most familiar to Americans as the author of the nursery rhyme, "Mary had a Little Lamb."

She wrote in 1827 that far too few national holidays existed and that Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be a national holiday. Sarah Hale believed that we should not only give thanks for all that we have as Americans but also remember the poor. It was Abraham Lincoln in 1863 who finally granted Sarah's wish and set aside the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. His Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued just four months prior to the Gettysburg Address.

In an editorial Sarah wrote in Godey's Lady's Book she said, "Let the people of all states and territories sit down together to the 'feast of fat things,' and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other, and peace and good-will to all men."

What are your Thanksgiving memories? The greatest ones I have are when I was a child and we would gather with my dad's relatives. There must have been at least 20 people at those annual Thanksgiving dinners. My grandmother, great-grandmother and great aunt would cook a bounty of foods, some of which seemed to border on the exotic to me. Those women would spend hours on just the baking of the pies. Yes, we had pumpkin but we also had minced meat pies. Now, the name, minced meat associated with a pie did not sound like an appetizing prospect for me as a 10-year-old girl. Nevertheless, those Thanksgiving memories are the ones I treasure.

Since Thanksgiving is a day that many families spend together and really have the time to talk, it makes sense that last year the United States Surgeon General proclaimed Thanksgiving Day 2004 as the first annual National Family History Day. As part of this initiative, families are encouraged to talk over and document diseases and medical conditions that family members have and those of family members who have passed.

I really believe in this initiative. Just researching one branch of my family has been an eye-opener in realizing the importance of documenting family health history. In my Chatham family, from their 19th century origins in North Carolina to my branch who moved to Texas and then on to California, almost every member has died from heart disease. This has even crept into current generations in the form of high blood pressure. I have spent time encouraging people in our family to get checked out for heart disease and to make heart health a priority. When you know your enemy it is easier to fight it.

Documenting your family health history is important for common but deadly diseases like heart disease and cancer, but it can also be helpful for less common diseases like sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. A few years ago a rheumatologist told me that I was developing Lupus. It was then that he asked me about the health history of my parents and grand parents. Although we do not have any other person with Lupus in my family, we do have a history of rheumatoid arthritis, which could have some influence in my diagnosis.

Please take the time this Thanksgiving, between cooking the turkey and eating the pies to ask your family questions about their health. It doesn't have to be invasive or nosey. It's about creating a healthier family. On the Surgeon General's website for the Family History Initiative, you can download software or a paper version of the family health history portrait. This guide will help you gather and document your family's health history. This is a great opportunity to help make your family history relevant to the present. Please do this. It's important; it could even help save your life or the lives of your descendents.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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