'BackStory' Radio Program Dishes Up History of Thanksgiving

November 20, 2008 – When you think of Thanksgiving, what comes to mind? Turkey on the table? Football on TV?

Dad in a dress?

Before the 1900s, it was common among the lower classes for cross-dressing masqueraders to parade drunkenly through the city demanding Thanksgiving treats. Our more solemn Thanksgiving begins not with the Pilgrims, but with the Victorians, who sought a national holiday honoring home and family.

In 1863, one such Victorian, Sarah Hale, convinced President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

So did Thanksgiving strengthen the Union, as Lincoln hoped? What relation do Native Americans have to the holiday in reality and in myth? How readily have immigrants adopted stuffing and cranberry sauce? And what are we celebrating, anyway?

Tune in to "BackStory with the American History Guys," a radio call-in and interview program featuring three historians with University of Virginia connections, to find out.

Airtimes for the program, "American as Pumpkin Pie: A History of Thanksgiving," are available online at www.backstoryradio.org/when-to-listen/.

Launched in June, "BackStory" is already receiving national airtime and just won a national award, the Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize, given annually by the Federation of State Humanities Councils to the nation's three best humanities projects.

Produced by VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, "BackStory" is a public radio program that brings historical perspective to contemporary events. Each week, renowned U.S. historians Peter Onuf, Brian Balogh and Ed Ayers tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths. Over the course of the hour, they are joined by fellow historians, people in the news and callers interested in exploring the roots of what's going on today.

Executive producer Andrew Wyndham said that producer Tony Field, associate producer Rachel Quimby and assistant producer Catherine Moore are developing a "specials" strategy, with forthcoming episodes focusing on financial panics and energy in American history, as well as the Thanksgiving program.

"This is getting 'BackStory' airtime on top 50 stations, making the program familiar and appealing to a broad audience," he said. "We're hoping the networks will start to take notice, as well. But in any event, it's exciting to see 'BackStory' gaining this kind of traction."

More about "BackStory" and Its Hosts

The three American History Guys are:

• Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and former dean of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. He is a scholar of 19th-century U.S. history and has written and edited 10 books, including "The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction," which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

• Peter Onuf, U.Va.'s Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, who is an expert on the federal period. He is spending the 2008-09 academic year as Harmsworth Professor at The Queen's College, Oxford University.

• Brian Balogh, U.Va. associate professor of history and co-chairman of the Governing America in a Global Era Program at U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He studies the 20th-century experience in America.

"BackStory" programs can be streamed at the show's Web site or downloaded as a podcast via iTunes.