Thanksgiving: An American HolidayNovember 17, 2017
Each November families around the United States gather at tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, savory sides and decadent desserts to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving. In our modern world, Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November, and it is a day that has become a holiday of tradition, feasting and shopping.
While many are familiar with the historical concepts of “Pilgrims and Indians” coming together to celebrate a harvest, much of the actual history of the holiday is either made up or overlooked. Even though the contemporary celebration of Thanksgiving is rooted in historical events and fact, the holiday we celebrate has come a long way from the first feast celebrated by the Plymouth Colony settlers and Wampanoag tribe.
The first historical record of Thanksgiving dates back to October of 1621, a year after English settlers formed the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The settlers came to the new world in an attempt to break free from the Church of England. This effort led them to a grueling journey across the Atlantic Ocean that lasted 66 days. Due to weather, the ship arrived off the coast of Cape Cod instead of New York as intended. The Pilgrims, as they are now known, spent their first winter in the new world on the Mayflower. It was a cold and dark season filled with malnutrition, disease and death.
As the weather slowly warmed and spring arrived, the remaining settlers and crew made their way to shore and founded the Plymouth Colony. Not long after they made their home in this strange new land, the native tribes in the area paid a visit to the newcomers and introduced the settlers to Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who knew English and acted as translator.
Under his tutelage, the Pilgrims learned how to navigate life in the new world. From teaching the newcomers how to fish in the local waters and grow indigenous crops to introducing them to the many uses of flora and fauna, Squanto was critical to their survival as a fledgling colony. Additionally, he acted as an intermediary who helped build an alliance between the Pilgrims and the nearby Wampanoag tribe.
As the summer season passed into autumn, the crops they cultivated in desperation grew into life-sustaining food. After a bountiful hunt that coincided with the first harvest of corn, the Pilgrims gathered for a feast lasting three days. While historical records show that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, and 90 of his people were in attendance, historical documents do not elaborate on who invited the Wampanoag or how the tribe learned of the feast.
After that first feast, years passed, and the country grew from small settlements to colonies and eventually into states. While many New England communities celebrated some version of a “Forefather’s Day” in the late autumn or early winter, not much thought was given to that first feast as recorded by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Public interest in the Pilgrims was renewed in the 1800s after researchers found William Bradford’s long-lost account of life during the early days of Plymouth Colony.
Sarah Josepha Hale, an intrepid magazine editor, first started researching the first Thanksgiving in the 1840s after being inspired by the rediscovered historical records. She decided to bring this tradition back to life and started published articles about the event and recipes for readers to make at home.
It was her efforts that brought a regional event to the attention of the growing country. In addition to her publications, she petitioned sitting presidents to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Finally in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made the last Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving. In later years this was changed to the fourth Thursday of November to set it apart from the Christmas holiday.
With this history in mind, take a moment to reflect on the long and complicated history of this beloved holiday as you make your preparations for this holiday of gratitude and abundance.