Thanksgiving has become the source of controversy in recent years. Many people feel this day of gratitude ignores the many atrocities committed by European settlers against the Indigenous peoples of North America. I have to admit they have a valid point.
However, when I researched the history of Thanksgiving I learned some important information which gives the practice of being grateful and giving thanks a separate identity from the legendary celebration between pilgrims and Indigenous Americans in 1621.
Thanksgivings were celebrated in The Americas by Indigenous communities after harvests, the end of droughts, or important victories over enemies long before the pilgrims and the Puritans came to the New World.
The French and Spanish held several Thanksgiving celebrations in America during the 16th century.
In ancient times, the concept of an annual celebration of the harvest was observed by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Thanksgiving is also similar to Sukkot, the ancient Jewish harvest festival.
The pilgrims and Puritans brought a tradition of providential holidays which included days of fasting for atonement during difficult times and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in plentiful times.
Being grateful and giving thanks is a universal concept found in almost every society on earth.
The story of the “first” Thanksgiving we were raised with – the one complete with happy pilgrims giving back to the kindly "American Indians" who helped them survive the first winter may be light on facts, but it should be remembered.
According to the journal of Edward Winslow, an attendee of the celebration, the feast, held at the Plymouth Plantation, lasted three days. Ninety Indigenous American men who helped hunt game for the feast were invited to attend. Winslow noted there were 53 pilgrims in attendance. Four pilgrim women who survived the first winter prepared the feast with the assistance of their daughters and several male and female servants. These four women were Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White.
Thanksgivings were celebrated sporadically in the years that followed. Other colonies including the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Connecticut Colony, and the Colony of New Amsterdam held their own celebrations on different dates. Because of the weather, settlers in Canada harvested their crops sooner, so their celebrations were earlier in the fall. Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday of October.
During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress urged the colonies to hold a yearly Thanksgiving celebration as a way to reconnect and show unity. It issued the first national Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777. The first National Day of Prayer was held on November 5, 1782 and in 1789, President George Washington designated October 3rd as the first Thanksgiving of the national government of the United States of America. Still, Thanksgiving was not held yearly. By 1858, 25 States and two territories had made proclamations ordering a day of Thanksgiving,
By the second half of the 19th century, the New England States had established Thanksgiving traditions which included holding a raffle on the eve of Thanksgiving to award a lucky winner a turkey or goose. A shooting competition was held on Thanksgiving morning, followed by a special church service, and a feast complete with turkey, pumpkin pie and pigeon pie.
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving in 1864.
American football became a popular part of Thanksgiving in Massachusetts shortly before the turn of the century. In New York City revelers took to the streets in mobs to celebrate. In the early 20th century, children in mix matched clothing with dirt smudges on their faces paraded around the city to mimic these earlier revelers in what became known as “Ragamuffin Parades.” In 1920, the city of Philadelphia held what’s believed to be the first “modern” organized Thanksgiving Day parade followed by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the Detroit Parade in 1924.
During the Great American Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt changed the official observance of Thanksgiving to the 4th Thursday in November in 1939 because there were five Thursday’s in November that year. Roosevelt wanted to make sure merchants had that extra week before Christmas to sell their products in hopes of stimulating the economy. In 1942, Congress made the change permanent.
Today, we have the opportunity to celebrate all these milestones along with expressing our gratitude for the blessings of friends and family, home and health, and our many freedoms. We can also take this opportunity to learn more about the Indigenous peoples whose generosity and expertise helped some of our ancestors survive. We can’t go back in time and right the many wrongs that have been committed against Indigenous peoples in America, but we can learn to respect their history and honor their accomplishments. Your local library is a great resource to get you started.