Thanksgiving is a holiday with a rich history that dates back to the early 17th century, and its origins are steeped in the traditions of the Native American peoples and the Pilgrims who settled in what is now the United States.
Thanksgiving, as we know it today, is a holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States. It’s a time when families and friends gather to give thanks for the blessings of the past year and to enjoy a hearty feast. The holiday has a fascinating origin that can be traced back to the early 17th century.
The Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists who sought religious freedom, are central to the Thanksgiving story. In 1620, they embarked on a perilous journey aboard the Mayflower to the New World. They were seeking a place where they could practice their faith without persecution. After a long and arduous voyage across the Atlantic, they finally arrived on the shores of what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in December 1620.
The first winter in the New World was extremely harsh for the Pilgrims. They faced food shortages, disease, and the challenges of adapting to a new and unfamiliar environment. By the time spring arrived, nearly half of the original Mayflower passengers had perished. It was a time of great suffering and loss.
In March 1621, the Pilgrims encountered a stroke of good fortune. They were visited by an English-speaking Native American named Samoset, who introduced them to Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe. Squanto had learned English and had spent time in Europe, so he was able to communicate with the Pilgrims. He played a pivotal role in helping them forge friendly relations with the local Wampanoag tribe.
The Wampanoag leader, Chief Massasoit, also played a crucial role in the early interactions between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. The two groups formed a mutual assistance pact that lasted for more than 50 years. This alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is a key part of the Thanksgiving story.
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest, and this event is often cited as the first Thanksgiving. The exact date is uncertain, but it likely took place in late September or early October. The celebration lasted for several days and included feasting, games, and expressions of gratitude.
The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared a meal that featured a variety of foods. Traditional Thanksgiving dishes like turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce were not part of the original feast. Instead, the menu likely included venison, fowl, seafood, corn, beans, squash, and other locally available ingredients.
The first Thanksgiving was a small and humble gathering, attended by around 50 Pilgrims and approximately 90 Native Americans. The celebration was a reflection of the Pilgrims’ gratitude for the assistance they had received from the Wampanoag, as well as their thankfulness for a successful harvest that would see them through the coming winter.
The story of the first Thanksgiving offers a glimpse into the challenges and hardships faced by the early American settlers and the vital role played by the Native Americans in their survival. It’s a story of cooperation and shared values that laid the foundation for the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today.
Now, let’s fast forward a bit. After that initial Thanksgiving feast, there were more days of thanks in the early American colonies, but they were not yet an annual tradition. Thanksgiving as we know it today didn’t become an official holiday until much later in American history.
In the 19th century, Thanksgiving gained momentum as a national holiday thanks to the efforts of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. She was an influential writer and editor who tirelessly lobbied for a national Thanksgiving holiday. Hale is also famous for writing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Hale believed that a national Thanksgiving holiday would help unite the country during a time of growing divisions. The United States was experiencing the tensions that would lead to the Civil War, and Hale saw Thanksgiving as a way to promote unity and healing. She wrote countless editorials and letters to politicians, including several to President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1863, President Lincoln heeded Hale’s call and issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. He set the date as the final Thursday in November. This proclamation was issued during the Civil War, a time when the country was deeply divided. Despite the ongoing conflict, Lincoln encouraged Americans to come together and give thanks for the blessings of the year.
In the years that followed, Thanksgiving became an annual tradition, a day for people to gather with loved ones and express gratitude for the good things in their lives. The Thanksgiving feast, with turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, became a symbol of this holiday.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a beloved tradition in New York City, began in 1924. It was originally called the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” and was intended to kick off the holiday shopping season. The parade features giant balloons, marching bands, and celebrities and has become an iconic part of Thanksgiving Day.
In 1939, another significant change occurred when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up by a week. He hoped that an earlier Thanksgiving would extend the holiday shopping season, boost the economy, and help the country recover from the Great Depression. This change, known as the “Franksgiving” controversy, caused confusion and met with mixed reactions. In 1941, Thanksgiving was officially set on the fourth Thursday of November, where it remains today.
Thanksgiving has evolved over the years to become a time for family gatherings, expressing gratitude, and enjoying a feast. It’s also a time when people often volunteer to help those less fortunate, emphasizing the spirit of giving.
In recent years, some people have begun to revisit the history of Thanksgiving and reflect on its impact on Native Americans. While the holiday is about gratitude and togetherness for many, there’s also a growing awareness of the complexities of the historical relationship between European settlers and Native Americans. Some people use the holiday as an opportunity to educate others about Native American history and culture.
In conclusion, the narrative of Thanksgiving takes us back to the early 17th century when the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to celebrate their successful harvest and give thanks for their blessings. Over time, Thanksgiving evolved into the national holiday we celebrate today, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale and the proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. It’s a day when we come together with family and friends to enjoy a special meal, express gratitude, and reflect on the blessings in our lives. While Thanksgiving has its roots in a historical event, it has grown to symbolize unity, thankfulness, and the spirit of giving. It’s a holiday that has a rich and evolving history, and it continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many Americans.