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11 Leif Erikson Facts for Leif Erikson Day

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While most people associate Italian explorer Christopher Columbus with the discovery of the giant landmass that we know today as North America, it’s believed that it was actually Vikings who first landed on the continent. Specifically, 11th-century Norse explorer Leif Erikson has been credited with sailing to Newfoundland and Labrador, along with establishing the first settlements in an area referred to as Vinland, a full 500 years before Columbus even set foot on a ship. 

While not nearly as widely popular as Columbus, Erikson does still get his own holiday to mark his contributions to exploration and, on October 9, the United States officially celebrates Leif Erikson Day by way of observance (it’s not a federal holiday, unlike Columbus Day). The day is celebrated without too much fanfare—no, you won’t be getting off work or school for Leif Erikson Day, and there probably won’t be a parade near you—though it’s been traditionally recognized by the current U.S. President with a proclamation about the holiday that extends praise not just to Erikson, but to the Nordic people and to the very spirit and appreciation of exploration. Erikson might not get the full Columbus treatment, but he was unquestionably an interesting guy (his dad was named “Erik the Red,” just for a start), and we’re happy to celebrate Leif Erikson Day with a ship full of fun facts about the Norse explorer.

1. HIS NAME

While Americans officially celebrate “Leif Erikson Day,” the explorer’s name is spelled differently depending on who is chatting about him and where they are doing it. In Old Norse he’s Leifr Eiríksson, in Icelandic he’s Leifur Eiríksson, in Norwegian he’s Leiv Eiriksson, and Wikipedia calls him Leif Ericson, just to mix things up. Since we’re celebrating Leif Erikson Day, we’ll just stick with “Erikson,” though since the name Erikson is a patronymic and not a family name (he’s literally “Erik’s son”), we really should be referring to him just as Leif.

2. HIS BACKGROUND

Sure, Leif is often referred to as being from Norwegian blood, but he was actually born in Iceland (around 970 CE), and both his father and his grandfather spent some serious time in Norway and eventually Greenland. Leif is also considered a Viking, but perhaps we’ll just call him Norse and be done with it. 

3. WHY OCTOBER 9?

While the actual date of Leif Erikson Day doesn’t have anything personally to do with Leif, it was picked for the holiday because it’s the anniversary of the day that the ship Restauration arrived in New York from Stavanger, Norway, back in 1825. The arrival of the Restauration marked the beginning of organized immigration from Scandinavia to the USA. The holiday was first recognized by Wisconsin in 1930, eventually becoming a nationally observed holiday in 1964.

4. HIS COOL FAMILY

Leif’s family was totally cool and totally wild. He was the son of Erik the Red, a Viking explorer traditionally credited with founding the first settlements in Greenland, but only after he was banished from Iceland for three years (for helping to start a landslide and killing some guys because he was convinced their father had stolen some magical beans that belonged to him, which sounds like the most terrifying fairy tale ever). Erik’s dad (and Leif’s grandfather) was Thorvald Asvaldsson, who was actually banished from Norway for manslaughter, which is what sent young Erik there in the first place. Leif was, thankfully, never banished from anywhere. Way to break from tradition.

5. NOT THE FIRST

The history surrounding Leif’s discovery of Vinland (and North America) is predictably hazy, with a number of people believing that Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see the continent, even if he never actually landed there.

6. LAUNCHING HIS EXPEDITION

One of the many stories about Leif holds that, obviously intrigued by Bjarni’s tales, he bought Bjarni’s ship off of him and set out in the direction of the mysterious new land. He is believed to have first landed on a rocky island he called “Helluland” (which many believe is Baffin Island), before going on to a second stop that he called “Markland” (presumed to be Labrador), and then venturing to his “Vinland” (whose location has been the subject of much debate).

7. BAD OMENS

Erik the Red was set to join Leif on his first North American expedition, but he left the crew after falling off his horse on the way to board the ship. Erik wasn’t injured, but he took the fall as a bad omen—even if it wasn’t one bad enough to get his son to stop his plan.

8. “LEIF THE LUCKY”

Erik’s bad omens aside, Leif and his crew stayed on in Vinland for a winter, and when they made their return to Greenland in the spring, they picked up yet another group of castaways on the way home. Thus, the punchy nickname “Leif the Lucky” was born. Sorry, papa Erik. (Some stories hold that Leif made his rescue on his way back from a second voyage to North America, but that nickname sticks.) 

9. WHERE IS VINLAND?

Good luck with this debate. Some people believe that Vinland is around the Cape Cod area, while others swear it’s in the north of Newfoundland. Still others believe that “Vinland” as a name applies to a wide region, not just one spot. What we do know, however, is that there is a Norse settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland and signs of similar settlements around Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. While Cape Cod doesn’t have the same evidence to back up strangely persistent beliefs that it was actually the site of Vinland, there is a stone wall in Provincetown that has been attributed to Leif’s younger brother, Thorvald. Nice work, kiddo.

10. RELIGIOUS LIFE

Leif got hip to Christianity after a trip to Norway that resulted in his becoming a bit of a consultant to King Olaf Tryggvason, and he quickly tried to convert his family and friends once he landed back in Greenland. His mother, Thjóðhildr, was so into Leif’s religious awakening that she too became a Christian and even built her own church, called Thjóðhild's Church. Erik wasn’t so keen on the idea, and steadfastly stayed with his Norse paganism. 

11. THORVALD’S ADVENTURES

Despite some claims that Leif returned to Vinland, it’s generally believed he didn’t—but that he sent out younger brother Thorvald instead (perhaps that’s where that stone wall came from). Two years after Leif’s discovery of North America, Thorvald borrowed his ship and set out to see it for himself. For a couple of years, Thorvald and his men explored the coastal areas, until a “skirmish” with Native Americans reportedly ended in Thorvald’s death. He is believed to be the first European to die and be buried in North America, which is a sad distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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