American Thanksgiving

The response to our episode about Thanksgiving last year was great, and many of you asked for a repeat this year. Rather than just run an encore presentation of that episode, I thought I’d expand on some of those myths and misconceptions about American Thanksgiving. Generally speaking, Thanksgiving is like almost all other holidays. The way it’s celebrated and the “history” that everyone “knows about it” is half fact and half myth.

Let’s start at the beginnings. When and where was the first American Thanksgiving observance and feast held? And who was there? The traditional story is that Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts were so grateful for their survival in the New World and for a bountiful harvest that they organized a day of “thanksgiving” prayer and feasting in 1621. The Pilgrims were so thankful for their new lives that they invited local Native Americans to join the feast, and it was a joyous event of cross-cultural understanding and friendship.

But immediately, Buzzkillers, we’ve got problems. Not only does the Plymouth story rest on shaky evidence, plenty of other places in colonial North America have claims to the first Thanksgiving observance. These include St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, San Elizario, Texas in 1598, and the Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia in 1619.

“Days of Thanksgiving,” however, had been observed in Europe for centuries before this. Sometimes, usually when an important and unexpected good event happened, clerics would announce a day of thanksgiving, where extra masses were held and thanksgiving prayers were said, literally “giving thanks” for surviving a terrible storm, winning a war, or something of that magnitude. So the idea of “thanksgiving” observances is a very old one. But what’s different about Thanksgiving in contemporary North America is that it has been given an official date to be observed and celebrated every year, rather than as an ad hoc practice that is used whenever something fortuitous happens.

Canadian Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the second Monday in October every year since 1957. Although an annual Thanksgiving had been established by the Canadian parliament in 1879, the date of observance was not fixed, and it moved depending on which Monday in October was most convenient in each year’s calendar.

The “official” date of American Thanksgiving moved around quite a bit, but eventually it was set as the fourth Thursday of November. But that wasn’t established until 1941. And the story of how Thanksgiving evolved in the United States is complicated and fascinating. So let’s start telling it!

The story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in the 1600s is the dominant one, and the one that most Americans think is the origin of their Thanksgiving tradition. No mere one day feast, the Pilgrims partied for three days after this particularly good harvest in 1621. It’s pretty clear, however, that this was a harvest celebration, not a thanksgiving observance. The story of deliverance from the religious persecution in England, as well as deliverance from a harsh winter doesn’t appear in any of the sources. In other words, the Pilgrims weren’t thanking God for some special act, they were having a harvest dinner. (Harvest dinners, by the way, were a centuries-old tradition. Even in modern day England, some people hold a harvest dinner every year in the autumn.)

The accounts that survive tell us that roughly 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans celebrated this 1621 harvest dinner. There’s no direct evidence that the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to the dinner, but since Squanto and other natives had helped the Pilgrims enormously during their early years as a settlement, it’s likely that, when the Native Americans came to the dinner, they were welcome. Venison was the main dish (and the only one that is mentioned in the available sources). They may have had turkey, because that was not uncommon at the time, but it was not as frequently consumed as deer.

In 1623, the Pilgrims did have more “religious” thanksgiving celebration. There was a drought that year, which finally broke with a 14-day rain. The subsequent harvest was abundant and the Pilgrims had reason to have a harvest dinner and also make it a day of Thanksgiving from the drought.

Days of thanksgiving were proclaimed (usually by Presidents, but sometimes by major clergymen) fairly regularly in the early decades of US history. These thanksgiving observations were usually for a specific event (such as the end of the War of 1812), and only sometimes for a general period of good fortune. Thanksgiving, therefore, was not a regularly scheduled holiday and was not necessarily observed every year. And the dates often varied from state to state.

Then came the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln usually gets the credit for creating a national day of Thanksgiving, starting with an 1863 proclamation, prompted by Union successes in the war, especially the Battle of Gettysburg. But if that’s not a myth, it’s certainly an oversimplification.

The real originator of what we recognize as Thanksgiving (both in terms of when it should held and what was should be celebrated) was Sarah Hale, the editor of the prominent magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, in Boston. Somewhere she read about the 1621 Pilgrims thanksgiving, probably a highly romanticized version, and thought that Thanksgiving should be celebrated as a national holiday. Starting in 1846, she wrote to Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, finally, Abraham Lincoln.

The combination of Hale’s ideas and Lincoln’s desire (and need) to give the country an emotional lift during the Civil War, spurred Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which declared that the holiday was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November each year.

Annual observances started in 1863 and have continued since then. Thanksgiving practices remained diverse for almost a century, however. People ate duck, geese, chicken, and sometimes turkey. Sometimes games and sports were played, and sometimes parades were held.

Fast forward to 1939, to another president who is given credit for modern Thanksgiving. In 1939, with the Depression still going on, President Roosevelt decreed that Thanksgiving was to be observed on the next-to-last Thursday of November each year. He did this to jump start the Christmas shopping season and boost holiday sales. (Thanksgiving, by this time, had marked the start of Christmas shopping.) There was considerable opposition to this, however, from some Republicans and others who thought it was wrong to mess with tradition.

Congress finally stepped in and passed a joint resolution saying that, starting in 1942, Thanksgiving would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November. That stuck.

So although the 1621 Pilgrim story is what we think about, it took a lot of other people and events bring about modern Thanksgiving: Sarah Hale, the Civil War, Abe Lincoln, the Depression, FDR, and the Congress. And when you throw in the traditional football games, the Macy’s Day parade, and the Presidential Turkey Pardoning, it means there have been a lot of cooks creating Thanksgiving.

What we’re going to need at the Institute Thanksgiving feast this year, Buzzkillers, is not more cooks, but more doctors. Lady Buzzkill had to call in specialists to resuscitate me from my food coma last year. It was touch and go, but I’ve been assured that the Institute has brought doctors and nurses onto the payroll this month, and I should be in good hands. So we can all look forward to at least another year of busting myths and taking names.

Buzzkill Bookshelf


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