A History of Thanksgiving
Lynnsey @ Kids Matter
Most of us have grown up on the classic story of the first Thanksgiving. You know, the autumn feast of 1621 that saw the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians peacefully come together to celebrate the harvest of that year. It was a rare example of two colliding civilizations that, for a brief moment, transcended the atrocities that were to define their relationship for centuries to come. It began with a group of 102 separatists (those wanting to separate from the Church of England) who, aboard the Mayflower, made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to the New World in search of religious freedom and the promise of personal prosperity. After a brutal winter, which many of the original settlers did not survive, the settlers were helped by an English speaking Abenaki Indian named Squanto. Squanto would not only teach the Pilgrims to cultivate crops, but to survive in an environment different from everything they had ever known. Most importantly, Squanto helped to solidify the alliance between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians.
And so you have the first Thanksgiving; a three day festival celebrating the autumn harvest. It was a celebration that offered a menu very different from that of our Thanksgiving meals today. In fact, very little historical evidence exists that can tell us exactly what they ate, but historians generally agree that lobster, seal, swan, and corn were on the menu. Absent were the pounds of turkey and pumpkin pie that now fill our plates every November.
Truth be told, this was neither the first Thanksgiving nor the one that solidified the festival as an annual holiday. Harvest celebrations date back to the beginning of time throughout all religions. For many Americans, the tradition can be traced back to the time of the English Reformation when the idea of giving thanks for various reasons (such as the celebration after Queen Elizabeth’s defeat of the Spanish Armada) first took hold. Furthermore, after the 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving celebrations were often dictated by local leaders and individual communities. It was not until 1863, during the height of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln (click to see President Lincoln’s proclamation in its entirety) declared the last Thursday of each November an annual national holiday. Later, in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the holiday from the last Thursday of the month to the fourth Thursday in an effort to boost an economy still recovering from the Great Depression by extending the Christmas shopping season by one week. Prior to this change, it was culturally frowned upon to advertise or shop for Christmas presents before the Thanksgiving holiday.
The history of this holiday is ancient and complex. It was celebrated across many generations, religions, and groups of people. Factor in our modern consumerist culture and it can be difficult to always remember the true meaning of the holiday. Furthermore, as a history buff, it is hard for me to ignore the violence and genocide that would later erupt between the Native American’s and European settlers, so any talk of the first Thanksgiving is always met with my infamous brand of skepticism and dramatic eye roll. Now, with FDR’s economic recovery plan still in full swing, we see retailers opening their doors at 6:00pm on Thanksgiving Day. This strategy of pushing Black Friday back further and further each year in order to maximize profits at the cost of employees having a whole day with their families is just, for lack of a better word, unethical. We shouldn’t stand for it, but we do. Why? Because saving a few bucks is more important than the person at the cash register having a day off to be with his or her family. We tend to forget that the whole purpose of the first Thanksgiving was to come together as a community, not just individual families, and celebrate the teamwork, friendship, hard work, and, most importantly, the self-sacrifice it took to bring a group of strange looking settlers back from the brink of extinction. Our lack of empathy for others and our inability to sacrifice our own wants for the good of all only showcases just how far gone we are from the original Thanksgiving. And so, on this day dedicated to giving thanks for all that we have (and we do have a lot), I urge all of you to reconnect with the true reason we set aside a day to give thanks because, trust me, not everyone is so lucky. As for me, I will spend the day giving thanks not for my material possessions, but for the people who mean more to me than any bargain television ever could. Unfortunately, I will have to do it from afar as I do not have time to drive home to be with my family and still make it to work by midnight where I am expected to serve the lines of customers camping out waiting for those bargain deals. Happy Thanksgiving, America.