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Where does Thanksgiving come from?

We know the primary school version . . . but where did Thanksgiving really come from? And why did it take more than 200 years for it to become a national holiday?

Thanksgiving tableAny first-grader can answer the titular question above: Where does Thanksgiving come from? “The Pilgrims and the Indians sat down to dinner together in 1621, and the rest is history.”

Not exactly. It took well over 200 years for Thanksgiving to become a holiday.

More legends than facts exist regarding the 1621 “harvest feast” with the Pilgrims and Indians that evolved into the present-day celebration of Thanksgiving.  After that dread first winter of 1620-21, during which  more than half of the colonists from the Mayflower had died, the fall of 1621 seemed downright prosperous by comparison.  Gov. William Bradford wrote that the colony was “all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.” After the harvest was gathered, the Pilgrims held a feast and invited the Indians:

“. . . and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor.”

What did they eat?  Turkey or another wild fowl, probably.  Although the turkey was a bird indigenous to North America, it was no stranger to the English when they arrived in 1620.  This was because Spanish explorers had brought turkeys back to Europe nearly a century before and traded them with the English.  So, turkey was familiar fowl to the colonists, and may well have graced the first harvest table.  While cranberry sauce is a staple of New England, it was probably not present at that early feast, since sugar was extremely scarce.  The Wampanoag contributions probably included cod and corn meal, in addition to fresh venison.

While this first-harvest-feast-with-the-Indians did actually happen (though not as late in the year as we celebrate it today), [tweetable]it’s not quite the case that Thanksgiving immediately sprang into fame as a new American holiday.[/tweetable]

The 1621 harvest feast was not so much a religious celebration as a secular one. However, “days of thanksgiving” became recurring religious feast days for later Puritans.  Throughout the seventeenth century, days of thanksgiving were relatively common and spontaneous, not fixed annual events.  Puritan ministers would call for such days to celebrate God’s providence in community life.  The days would be marked with community-wide celebration, just as Puritan fast days featured entire towns fasting and praying for the town’s perceived sins.

The day of the week chosen for Puritan fasts and feasts was often Thursday, which is still the case for Thanksgiving to this day. (This is part of the reason why my own religious tradition of Mormonism, whose founders had origins in New England, continued the practice of holding their fasts on Thursdays until 1896, when the day of the monthly Mormon fast was changed to Sunday.)

As President, George Washington tried to institute Thanksgiving as a late-November American holiday, but Thomas Jefferson thought this smacked of “kingly” arrogance and abolished the official practice when he became president.  By the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving had become an annual autumn observance that was the pride of New England. But this celebration remained almost wholly a regional holiday until the 1850s, when the editor of Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book gave the holiday terrific press in the hopes of uniting the increasingly splintered nation with a shared Thanksgiving tradition.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln thought along similar lines, seeking some sort of observance that could unite the Blue and the Grey in a common identity.  He hit upon Thanksgiving.  And although it took a while before the South caught on to this Yankee festival, it eventually became just what Lincoln had hoped: an all-American holiday.

Two Thanksgiving celebrations are observed in Plymouth, Massachusetts today, reflecting tensions about the holiday and its history.  The most well-known features a parade of fifty-one local residents, dressed in 17th-century attire, who represent the fifty-one survivors of the first harsh winter the Pilgrims endured.  The other observance is not a celebration, but a National Day of Mourning.  It is organized by area Wampanoag who, in the words of historian Diana Eck, “resist this picture-perfect rendition of a history that has remembered by name all of the survivors of the colony and forgotten the victims of the colonization.”  One 1998 speaker summarized the protestors’ passion.  “We will not give thanks for the invasion of our country; we will not celebrate the theft of our lands and the genocide of our people; we will not sing and dance to please the tourist who come here seeking a Disneyland version of our history.”

This post has been adapted from a selection of The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England, by Jana Riess. Happy Thanksgiving, and see you next week.

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