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Out of the Ordinary Thanksgivings

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a very consistent holiday. Every year is the same: the same feast with the same dishes, the same family members sitting at the same places around the table, and everyone knows what's going to happen. It's tradition! And most of the time, we love it that way -or else we would change it. But what if it was different? While you're enjoying the traditional family holiday, read about some Thanksgivings that fall outside the norm in one way or another.

Dinner Disaster

I've hosted Thanksgiving for years, and can't say I've had any real disasters. Several times I remembered the rolls in the oven after everyone has eaten, but that's no disaster. A disaster is when a dog carries your turkey off, or when everything else is done and you find the turkey needs another two hours to cook. Every year there are posts that share stories of Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong, with more stories always posted in the comments. The Butterball Hotline collected the most classic stories of clueless cooks and their turkeys.

The Deep-fried Turkey Disaster

Image by Flickr user starlen.

Starlen, however, had a turkey disaster in 2005 that was so complete he had to write about it. He and his friend Tomas lived through the list of things that can go wrong with the manly deep-fried turkey plan, starting with buying the fryer the day before Thanksgiving. The store was sold out, but the staff was glad to piece together two returned fryers for them, crossing fingers that it would work.

Sad, worthless thermometer.

Image by Flickr user starlen.

That one fact gives us three clues about what eventually led to a charred, black turkey. For one, it was the first time either of these men tried to deep-fry a turkey. Second, they waited until the last minute to make sure they had all the tools and supplies they needed. And three, the fryer itself had been returned to the store because it was defective, or rather, two fryers were returned because they were defective. Can you guess which part was still defective? You can read the entire story to find out.

Immediately before spitting turkey out.

Image by Flickr user starlen.

Of course, it could have been much worse. Starlen and Tomas were outside, away from any flammable structures, as all turkey-fryers should be. The deep-fried turkey has elevated Thanksgiving to the level of dangerous holidays like the Fourth of July and News Year's Eve. Here's a set of videos that show how a Thanksgiving turkey can turn into a ball of flame bent on destruction.

The Stranger at the Table

Everyone is welcome at my table, so I am used to various cousins and in-laws showing up for Thanksgiving, expected or not. There's always enough food. But I usually know who they are. One year, a carload came with a fellow I'd never met. Someone may have introduced him by name, but no one ever explained who he was. It was only weeks later that I found out he was my late husband's cousin's boyfriend. I would have never guessed, as the man was at least 30 years older than the cousin (they later married). But that story pales in comparison with the Tran family, who welcomed a stranger from the other side of the globe.

Thanksgiving with the Tran Family

Australian journalist James West has the same common name as a man of the Tran family of Florida, and his email address was inadvertently entered into someone's list. Years ago, he began to receive groups emails about their Thanksgiving plans. He mostly ignored them. After all, he didn't know these people, and Thanksgiving is an American holiday he didn't celebrate. But last year West started reading them and got to know them a bit. He retrieved old messages from previous years that had more information. The more he learned, the more intrigued he became. After a while, he could even piece together who was related to who. He wanted to go and have Thanksgiving with the Trans, but was unsure about how to go about doing it (not wanting to appear creepy, you know). So he took the dilemma to YouTube (which is still somewhat creepy). The videos he made about the quest were popular in Australia, but the Tran family did not know about them. Yet.

West finally responded to a message, asking what he could bring. They suggested he bring corn. That weighed heavy on his mind, because they still thought he was the intended relative. So he came clean and explained who he really was -a stranger in Sydney. Martha Tran DeForest replied, "You are so invited!" At the last possible minute, West boarded a plane in Sydney and flew 20 hours to Florida for the holiday.

The Tran family welcomed West at the Miami airport and took him to Jupiter to meet the "Tran Clan," and then to Port St. Lucie for the feast. The two James Wests finally got to meet.

The event made both local and global news. West and the Americans became friends and the Trans held an additional party in West's honor before he had to return to Sydney. You can see the entire series of videos at West's YouTube channel.

This year, West is in America once again, this time covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. You can follow his updates at Twitter.

Serving Others

Shelter

Image by Flickr user Jan Tik.

Sure, It's a family holiday, but everyone should spent at least one Thanksgiving out of their lifetime with those who don't have family or someplace to enjoy a home-cooked feast.

David and Marie Linton are not only helping to serve Thanksgiving dinner, but are manning the front desk at the homeless shelter in shifts with other volunteers. They serve meals at a soup kitchen on other days, but say that Thanksgiving is special.

“It was a way to be of service. It’s a real time to be grateful for all the blessings we do have, and this was a good way to be thankful. It made the day more special, because we could not only give thanks in our prayers and our thoughts, but we could also in our actions.”

Shelley Gillespie makes volunteering a way of life, and introduced her son to the joys of serving those less fortunate when he was quite young.
Becky Genese first volunteered at a soup kitchen during college, since she couldn't afford to go home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Volunteering wasn't her idea, but she went along with a friend.

“I don’t recall being very enthusiastic about it,” Genese said. “But when in Rome…”

To her surprise, she said she had a great time and felt a “real sense of joy” volunteering that day. This ultimately led to ongoing volunteer work with homeless and sheltered populations throughout New York. Later, she began volunteering at the soup kitchen offered through her lower Manhattan church and continues to give of her time year-round, even though she has since moved to New Jersey.

Genese is now married with children, and after she cooks for her own family ahead of time, she takes more food to a Manhattan soup kitchen and serves Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.

One thing that the stories of volunteerism have in common is that helping out becomes a habit, because it is more rewarding than you'd expect. And it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving to be a joyful event. Many soup kitchens, food banks, and shelters need volunteers for the Christmas season and all year round. It sure helps to put one's problems into perspective.

Away From Home

Maybe you have to work on Thanksgiving, or maybe you're away at school, or you live away from your extended family. Memories of Thanksgivings past can make you a lot more homesick than other days. But no one is farther away from home than soldiers in a war zone.

Thanksgiving on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan

Thanksgiving on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan. Image by Flickr user The U.S. Army.

Military meals in Afghanistan can mean MREs in the field, mass quantities at established bases, and everything in between, depending on the day and the situation. At Thanksgiving, those in charge try their best to bring in traditional holiday foods for everyone. About a quarter of the 160,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan will have Thanksgiving dinners airlifted to their remote locations -the only way to get supplies in if you're in the mountains.

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Thanksgiving at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Image by Flickr user isafmedia.

For troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Logistics Agency is providing Thanksgiving dinner.

More than 270 dining facilities have received their deliveries and are postured to serve the special holiday fare later this month due largely to DLA's early planning, which began in May. Deliveries included: 168,000 lbs. of turkey; 37,800 lbs. of stuffing; 93,876 lbs. of beef; 43,560 lbs. of sweet potatoes; 24,000 lbs. of shrimp; 34,560 pies and 25,800 lbs. of cranberry sauce along with many other holiday treats.

1st Lt. Lorena Vega was the logistics officer at Kapisa PRT (Province Reconstruction Team) in Afghanistan in 2010. She spent weeks coordinating a Thanksgiving feast in which all 100 troops and support personnel could sit down at the same time -which doesn't happen for everyday meals. Finding a place that big, and enough tables and chairs, was a real job. Vega also managed to get tablecloths and candles to make the meal special, but having a place for everyone to be together at once was what the soldiers appreciated most.

The Important Part

All these different Thanksgiving scenarios have one thing in common. They highlight the fact that even though we describe our Thanksgiving holiday in terms of the food, that doesn't matter nearly as much as the people you spend the day with. Whether your Thanksgiving is exactly the same as you expect every year, or if this is the year you plan something different, or even if things take an unexpected turn from what you planned, remember that family, friends, colleagues, or even total strangers make it what it is.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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