As Thanksgiving approaches each year, few of us stop to consider the history behind the holiday. We break out the turkey, pass the gravy, and—hopefully—enjoy the pleasant company.
But Thanksgiving has a long and storied history, some of which might surprise you!
Many of us know bits and pieces of the story, that Pilgrims and Native Americans dined together, resulting in the first Thanksgiving. But there’s much more to it than that.
In September of 1620, a ship by the name of the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, carrying a group of 102 Pilgrims—religious separatists in search of religious freedom, drawn to promises of land ownership in the New World. When they arrived, they founded Plymouth colony.
Their first winter was unexpectedly brutal, and most of the colonists took refuge aboard the Mayflower. Only half survived long enough to see spring.
Sometime around March, the survivors moved back ashore, where they encountered a Native American of the Pawtuxet tribe named Squanto—a man who had been kidnapped by the English and sold into slavery, only to escape and return to his homeland. Because of this, he was proficient in English.
Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to survive, how to grow corn, extract sap, and fish. He also acted as an ambassador between the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag tribe, establishing a friendship between the two groups that would last for decades.
In November of 1621, the Pilgrims successfully harvested their first crop of corn, and their governor, William Bradford, called for a celebration and a feast, to which he invited the Native Americans who had aided in the colony’s survival.
Although it wasn’t called such at the time, this great feast, uniting two disparate peoples who would normally have been at odds with one another, was America’s first Thanksgiving. Historians think that the menu may have included deer, fish, lobster, and the harvested crops, and the dishes were likely prepared through traditional Native American cooking methods.
With Thanksgiving yet to become an official holiday, it was not celebrated the following year, nor the year after that. It wasn’t until 1623 that another Thanksgiving celebration was held, after the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s crops.
It was to be many years before Thanksgiving came with any regularity. Annual periods of fasting and thanksgiving was a fairly common practice in New England at the time, and during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress finally began to set aside dedicated days of Thanksgiving each year.
Thanksgiving took a further step toward countrywide legitimacy in 1789, when George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the United States government, calling upon Americans to express their gratitude for the positive outcome of the war of independence.
By 1817, a handful of northern states began to officially adopt Thanksgiving as an annually observed and recognized holiday, but each of these states celebrated the holiday on a different date, and the day went unobserved in much of the rest of the country.
Sensing a need for Thanksgiving unity, in 1827, writer Sara Josepha Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. After almost four decades, president Abraham Lincoln finally noted her request.
In 1863, during the worst of the Civil War, Lincoln issued a proclamation asking all citizens to ask God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife”.
Scheduling Thanksgiving Day for each final Thursday in November, Lincoln made Thanksgiving official. Turkey day was born.
The idea, though, of a celebration of a bountiful harvest predates Thanksgiving, predates Lincoln, predates even the Plymouth colonists, and extends back millennia into the most ancient of cultures. Did you know that Thanksgiving shares cultural roots with Halloween? The pagan precursor to Halloween, Samhain—pronounced sowen—was, in part, a celebration marking the end of summer and the harvest—the same kind of harvest-time celebration.
And the traditional symbol of Thanksgiving, the cornucopia, has origins in Greek mythology—the goat, Amalthea, also known as the Nourishing Goddess, fed an infant Zeus with her milk. Possessed with unusual strength, the child accidently broke off one of Amalthea’s horns, which was found to have the power of unending nourishment.
Regardless of tradition, autumn, the time when we’ve historically benefited from the year’s labors, is a natural time for us to express our gratitude for what we’ve been given. This tradition of thanks has passed through many cultures and traditions before reaching our contemporary culture.
Today, Thanksgiving has shed much of its religious heritage, and is more about bringing family and friends together over a feast of traditional foods such as turkey, sweet potato casserole, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, and dinner rolls.
Beyond the food and family, parades also mark our modern Thanksgivings. Since 1924, New York City has hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which moves from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s Herald Square flagship store. The parade includes popular performers and enormous parade floats. The final float of the parade features Santa Claus, whose arrival begins the Christmas season.
Not everyone finds Thanksgiving to be quite so festive, however. Some see the holiday as a reminder of the cultural genocide visited upon the Native Americans by European colonizers. There is some validity to this, as few think of the horrors inflicted upon the Native America as European settlers spread throughout America, when the traditional story of Thanksgiving is one of a happy relationship between the natives and colonists.
But aside from any controversy, Thanksgiving remains a time to dwell on what we are thankful for, and whether those thanks are directed at God, at family and friends, or at both, this holiday inspires a gratefulness that should permeate our lives all year round.
When that fourth Thursday in November rolls around, remember to look beyond the simple pleasures of turkey and gravy. Voice your thanks. Tell your family that you love them, and are grateful for them. You’ll set a great tone for the rest of the year’s holiday season.