A brief history of Thanksgiving
Despite being one of the most beloved holidays in America, Thanksgiving has quite controversial past. The story most commonly told about the origins of the holiday describe and idyllic gathering between Native Americans and British settlers in the beginnings of the country’s foundation.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from a Native American who greeted them in English.
Some members of the local tribe had been kidnapped by an English sea captain years before and sold into slavery before escaping and returning to their homeland on anther ship.
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1925
These Natives Americans taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. This remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, the Governor organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the colony’s Native American allies. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”, the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the first Thanksgiving’s exact menu, historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods.
Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday
Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted the Governor to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well.
In 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.
In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. However, the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition.
In 1827, the magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For years she published numerous editorials and sent many letters to various politicians, earning her the nickname “The Mother of Thanksgiving.”
Abraham Lincoln finally granted her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to increase retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
In most American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost its original historical and religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple is so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.
Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience.
Macy's thanksgiving parade
For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims’ celebration. In 1565, for instance, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local native tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival.
Some Native Americans and others take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially to schoolchildren. The traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the native people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Not to mention that the derogatory term “Indian” was commonly used until the 1970s. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning” and similar events are held in other parts of the country.
Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins
Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can possibly be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic. The Pilgrims who arrived brought with them traditional providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.
Moreover, Thanksgiving is just one of the many annual harvest festivals celebrated throughout the world over millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Plus, historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and celebration long before Europeans set foot on their shores.