Thursday, 22 November 2018 11:13

A Brief Review of the History of Thanksgiving

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Just as is true for most, if indeed not all, of our holiday traditions in the United States, the modern-day version of what Thanksgiving has historically entailed is rife with inaccurate perceptions, untruths, and veritable impossibilities.  Succinctly stated, much of what we think we know about the holiday is simply wrong.

Yes, there are some facts upon which we can rely as being documented and true.  There was indeed a boat called the “Mayflower” that transported approximately 102 passengers and a crew of 30 from Plymouth, England, to what is now Cape Cod Harbor on 11 November 1620.  After two failed attempts and then 66 days at sea, the “Puritan Separatists” (the word “Pilgram” was not applied to the group until the 1840’s) were happy to find an established village, complete with a freely-flowing stream and cleared fields for planting, already there.  

This collection of huts was promptly named “Plimoth” (Plymouth) by the “Separatists” in honor of their point of departure from England.  But how did this happen?  It was an “abandoned” settlement built and previously occupied by the natives, but plague brought on by earlier arrivals of Europeans had effectively eliminated the population.

So the “Pilgrams” of 1621 indeed had much for which to be thankful.  In celebration of their good fortune in finding ready-made homes a year earlier, a relatively successful harvest of foodstuffs, and having survived a year in the “New World” under harsh conditions, a three-day gathering was held.  But it was in October (November would have been a bit late; harvests were collected and stored long before that) when the festivities were held. Approximately 50 colonists were in attendance.

But this was not an unusual, much less original, type of celebration.  American Indians, Europeans, and countless other cultures around the world had for centuries paid homage to whatever it was that they considered to be the source of providing for their sustenance and thus their very survival.  As early as 1541, the Spanish under Coronado held a similar while searching for gold in the Texas Panhandle area.  French Huguenots in the area of present-day Jacksonville, Florida did the same in 1564. 

Even the English had already conducted a “Thanksgiving” style celebration in conjunction with the natives (Abnaki tribe) in Maine (Kennebec River) in 1607 and in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610.  These two “parties” were held upon the arrival of food-laden ships that ended famines in each of these settlements.  The afore-cited event of 1614 is another example of something similar to what we now call “Thanksgiving,” but it is the 1621 gathering that most consider to be the “original” feast that we now emulate.  But why?

Perhaps Edward Winslow, a leader of the Separatists at Plymouth, should be considered the “Father of Thanksgiving” in the sense that it was his description of that 1621 gathering that provided the basis for much of what we now know to be associated with the holiday.  Winslow wrote a letter that was lost for two centuries but, when rediscovered in the 1830’s, brought attention to that “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. 

Printed by Boston publisher Alexander Young in 1841, the Winslow letter denoted the “harvest celebration” (there is no mention of any type of “Thanksgiving” in the original letter – such a moniker would have, ironically, been attributed only to a day of total fasting in the 1600’s) as a one-time event rather than something to be repeated annually.  It was Young rather than Winslow who implemented usage of the term “thanksgiving” and, given the power of the pen and press, it caught on in the lexicon of American culture. 

Some semblance of “Thanksgiving” celebrations had been previously held intermittently throughout the history in the United States, but not necessarily in recognition of the Plymouth settlers. General Washington officiated at an “Evacuation Day” (a Thursday in November of 1781 following the 19 October surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown) in which thanks were given for the departure of the British and the de facto closing of the Revolutionary War.  It was THIS "holiday" that was unofficially noted in November (though the actual day and date varied from state to state) throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

It was still not until 1863 that the United States decreed the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving” to be an official holiday held in reverence, but again, this was not in the tradition of what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving.  President Lincoln issued a presidential decree to that effect upon the suggestion of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (originator of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), but it was to demonstrate gratefulness for Union victories in the siege of Vicksburg and the battle at Gettysburg in July and had little, if anything, to do with the Puritans and Plymouth.

President Roosevelt is responsible for finally establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the official date of Thanksgiving and for the meaning it now has for us, but again, not necessarily out of respect for the Puritan Separatist Pilgrams of 1621.  On 31 October 1939, FDR changed the holiday to the “next to last” (not necessarily the fourth) Thursday for business reasons (think Black Friday shopping after the Depression).  This proved unpopular on years when this “next to last” Thursday was the third one, so on 26 December 1941, just as the United States was entering into World War II, Roosevelt subsequently revised the official date of observance of the national holiday of Thanksgiving to our current one of the fourth Thursday in November.

So continue on with your "traditional" Thanksgiving ritualistic proceedings with the caveat that the "holiday" has historically varied in meaning and that we aren't really doing it exactly as it was originally conducted and/or intended.  

Last modified on Thursday, 22 November 2018 11:38