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The Tradition of Thanksgiving

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The modern Thanksgiving holiday occurs in the USA on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a time that friends and family gather together, often travelling long distances, for usually a turkey dinner. It is associated with the Pilgrim Fathers; the mainly Separatist Puritans who landed in America in 1620. The holiday is now based on a feast the Pilgrims had with their Native American neighbours a year later. This is the tradition. The history is different.

Early holidays

The Christian Church before the Reformation in England had something like 95 Church (Holy Days) holidays along with 52 Sundays. On these days, people were to attend church and not work. After the English Reformation in the 1500s, the number of Church holidays was reduced to 27, however, Puritans wanted to get rid of them all including Christmas and Easter. This was one of the reasons why for long periods of time Christmas was a minor holiday in most parts of North America. Puritans only wanted to celebrate the Sabbath and days of fasting or days of thanksgiving. Fasting was a way of appealing to God for mercy in the face of major threats and feasting on thanksgiving days was for victories or bountiful harvests. England also had a history of harvest festivals dating back to pre-Christian times marked with feasting.

The first Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving Day in America is popularly dated back to autumn 1621. The Pilgrim Fathers landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. It was 1621 when they celebrated their first harvest along with Native Americans. This could never have been a Puritan Thanksgiving as it did not revolve around a religious service and such a religious service would not have included Native Americans. It would not have lasted the three days that it is recorded as being as a Puritan celebration would have been restricted to one day. However, there was a colony at Jamestown from 1607 and there is a detailed record of a Thanksgiving taking place near that settlement in 1619. It is very probable that earlier such Thanksgivings took place from 1610 onwards in Virginia.

During the colonial period, Thanksgiving would have been celebrated without real reference to what is now traditionally perceived as the ‘first’ Thanksgiving. It was moveable in relation to its date and what may have been celebrated although it would have still been close to its Puritan, essentially religious, roots.

A national day

In the midst of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), and after, there were thanksgiving days where military victories were celebrated.

While the Continental Congress and then the first United States President, George Washington, declared Thanksgiving Day on the final Thursday in November, its declaration as a national day was intermittent. Many states did declare a Thanksgiving Day annually but its date varied throughout the year according to the state.

It would be fair to say that the early first eye-witness accounts of the Thanksgivings in the early 1600s did not influence the Thanksgivings in the 1700s and most of the 1800s. These early accounts were not rediscovered in the archives until the 1820s and were republished in the 1840s.

It was in 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865), that the present institution of Thanksgiving Day was ordained. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of celebration. Part of the idea being to raise the country’s spirits in the middle of a bitter war and to bring people together. Traditions varied from region to region. There was a hearty meal, usually featuring turkey and vegetables. There was an element of giving thanks to God. It became a day when major and minor sporting activities were held. Parades also developed. Only by 1900 did the ‘traditional’ narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Native Americans move into public consciousness.

White colonists had fought the Frontier Wars with the Native Americans since the 1600s. Conflicts occurred on many occasions in many places and at times Native Americans were enslaved. In less than 300 years they were forced onto small reservations of generally poor land where once they had roamed the whole continent.  The ‘Indian Problem’ was over and Native American people and some of their culture could be appropriated as “American.” Smiling Native Americans could be seen with happy settlers in Thanksgiving pageants.

Save the date – but which date?

The date was always the last Thursday in November, however, in 1939 there were five Thursdays in the month. The president F.D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, felt that this left too little time for the Christmas season and for shopping for Christmas. He declared the second last Thursday as Thanksgiving Day with the idea that in future it would be the second last Thursday rather than the last. This lead to a split in the country – about half the states went with the last and half with the second last Thursday. They were popularly called the Democratic or Republican Thanksgiving respectively.  Texas could not decide and took both as a holiday. In 1940 and 1941 F.D. Roosevelt declared the second last Thursday as the day. The country continued to be split as to which one to take. Compromise came in 1942 with Congress deciding on the fourth Thursday. So five years out of seven it is on the last Thursday.

Reactions to and reflections on Thanksgiving

Native American people have mixed reactions to Thanksgiving. Their land started to be occupied by the new settlers not long after the ‘original Thanksgiving celebration’. European diseases were introduced that killed a high proportion of the native population, who had no immunity to them. European culture and religions were forced on them. They were treated as second class citizens in their own country. However, some do celebrate the holiday in the traditional ‘American’ way.

Tradition is not a fossil from former times, but rather an evolving story where parts of the meaning have been lost, different meanings understood and new meanings developed. Through History, we explore the firmer foundations of facts and evidence.

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