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Holiday History - Thanksgiving

One of the most popular holidays on the American calendar, Thanksgiving has been a day for people across the United States to get together with family and friends, watch football, enjoy parades, play games, and of course eat turkey, potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie. For pious families, this is a day of giving thanks to God for all he has provided within the last year. In the general U.S. culture, Thanksgiving is also seen by many as the day heralding the beginning of the Christmas season.

When it comes to public consciousness about the origins of the holiday, many people think of 1620's Pilgrims, the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, Native Americans, a grand feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, and Indian corn, and the image of Europeans and Native Americans joyfully coming together to celebrate an abundant harvest. While elements of this image are actually myth, there are some aspects that are indeed historical fact. So what is the real history behind the Thanksgiving event, and why do we celebrate it on the fourth Thursday of November? Let's take a look at the history and find out.

The History of Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag

The history of the Thanksgiving holiday began in 1620, when a company of Puritans (aka Pilgrims) led by Gov. William Bradford organized to set sail on the Mayflower for North America, in an effort to escape religious persecution in England and find greater religious freedom in a new land. Due to complications in voyage preparations, and structural failures in their accompanying ship (the Speedwell), the Mayflower did not arrive in North America until early November of 1620. After a failed attempt to sail towards the Hudson River in New York (their original destination), the Mayflower company finally decided on settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and began building their colony in December of that year. Needless to say, the rough voyage and their late start on settlement made their first winter in North America a brutal one, with forty-five of the one-hundred and two members of the company dying during that time. And while both Pilgrims and Native Americans were aware of each other's presence, contact was tentative for the first few months.

Finally, in the following spring (March, 1621), Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag visited the struggling Plymouth colony with his colleague, Samoset. Together, along with Tisquantum (aka Squanto, the last of the Patuxet tribe and a gifted interpreter), they arranged peaceful agreements with the Pilgrims, and while the two groups largely kept to themselves, they did begin to engage in trade with one another. During these transactions, the Wampanoag shared with the Pilgrims new and effective methods for agriculture, fishing, hunting and cooking. This was a great help to the Pilgrims, who were able to reap an abundant harvest during their second autumn in North America. To commemorate this blessing, the Pilgrims engaged in a days' long celebration. As the Pilgrims were celebrating, about ninety Wampanoag made a surprise visit at the edge of their settlement. While at first the Pilgrims were unnerved by such a large group approaching their colony of fifty, it was soon made clear that intentions were peaceful, and the two groups celebrated together for several days, each of them contributing to the feast. While modern Thanksgiving feasts include turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, the original menu for the Pilgrims' and Wampanoag's feast likely included food like goose, duck, venison, vegetables, fish, shellfish and stews. The two groups also socialized together and played games.

A Tangled Legacy

In the years following this event, relations between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag remained peaceful, with Chief Massasoit being a key diplomat between the two. The Pilgrims had great respect for Chief Massasoit, and even helped to nurse him back to health after he fell deathly ill in the winter of 1623. However, as new waves of Europeans began to claim more and more territory in New England, maintaining peace between the Europeans and local Native American tribes became harder and harder. Chief Massasoit was able to maintain peaceful relations with the Pilgrims throughout his lifetime (d. 1661), but tensions rose and eventually resulted in King Phillip's War (1675-76), led by Metacom (aka King Phillip), Massasoit's second son. The war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Europeans and thousands of Native Americans. What had once started as strangers becoming friends through trade, gratitude and even love and respect in one generation devolved into friends becoming enemies in the next generation through greed, hatred and violence. This in turn caused the original Thanksgiving story to become more of a mixed picture or even a negative one in the minds and hearts of many Wampanoag descendants.

A National Holiday

For the next century, like the Pilgrims before them, New England colonists would hold feasts of thanksgiving during days of prayer, or to observe certain key occasions like the end of a drought or a military victory. Upon the enactment of the Constitution, the U.S. Continental Congress also proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in honor of the event. However, the development of Thanksgiving into a national holiday - like the Mayflower voyage before it - wasn't all plain sailing. After 1798, congress left the declaration of thanksgiving holidays up to the individual states, as there were objections to the idea of the federal government having power over religious observances. As the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday originated with New England Northerners, many Southerners in the U.S. took exception to the idea of importing the holiday into their own culture, and the holiday was sometimes used as an opportunity for partisan groups to make speeches and hold parades favoring their various agendas. Far from uniting the country in a common spirit of gratitude, Thanksgiving seemed to only cause even more division among the states and the people of the country. It wasn't until the Northern states gained more control in the federal government that the idea of a cohesive national Thanksgiving Day became a real a possibility.

Finally, in the mid-19th century, editor Sarah Josepha Hale of Godey's Lady's Book campaigned for a national Thanksgiving Day in order to promote unity in a divided nation. With support from President Abraham Lincoln, this idea finally became a reality when he proclaimed on October 3, 1863 that Thanksgiving Day would be celebrated that year on Thursday, November 26. Most every year since then, a national Thanksgiving holiday has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, with its placement on the U.S. calendar being solidified in a joint proclamation in 1942 by Congress and President Roosevelt.

Reflections on Thanksgiving 2020

I can remember learning about Thanksgiving when I was a little kid. Like many American children in the 90's, I can remember decorating the classroom with paper turkeys, stapling posters of Pilgrims and Native Americans to the bulletin boards, reading picture books and watching cartoon specials that showed how the Native Americans heroically helped the Pilgrims in their new home, and everyone coming together to feast happily without a fear nor care in the world. Of course, I was too young to grasp all the intricacies of the historical event, and I do not blame my elementary school teachers for the simplification of the story for our young minds. However, as an adult, I know it's best to look into the story with as much truth as can possibly be known. And in doing so, I find that the true story of Thanksgiving actually offers us more real hope and inspiration for our time than we may think; even more so than a romanticized version of the story ever could.

In this month of November and moving into December, we find ourselves approaching the end of a long and arduous year. In the year 2020, we've seen our world hit by a pandemic that is still on the move, we've felt our social fabric strained to the breaking point, we've seen people do things and have heard them say things we can hardly believe, and our political climate is extremely polarized. Perhaps as many of us are getting ready for our Thanksgiving holiday, we feel sad that we won't be able to gather with one another like we have in years passed, as we wish to cooperate with current health recommendations. Or maybe we are bracing ourselves for the potentially combative conversations that may take place with our family members and/or friends who think very differently than we do about socio-political matters. Or maybe we are struggling to feel a sense of thankfulness at all after such a hard year. Maybe some of us feel that in light of the history of the colonization in America, we ought not celebrate Thanksgiving as we do given the events that came after the first Thanksgiving feast. Whatever the case, for many people, this will be a difficult Thanksgiving for one reason or another...and we need not shy away from the fact. Perhaps it is in times such as this that Thanksgiving is more needed and more relevant than ever.

One of the things I like about the real history of the first Thanksgiving is how real it is. That is, it wasn't a rose-tinted story about two groups of people with big differences coming together immediately and feeling at home with one another. Both were leery of each other at first, and even when connections were made, they weren't hanging out together all the time, and a lot of the motivations were purely practical. But that was ok. Cultivating a relationship takes time, and it takes courage to make the first steps at reaching out to the stranger or to the "other." And living together in harmony doesn't mean that you have to be uniform with one another. It does, however, require showing respect, knowing how to love your neighbor well, and making time to observe that which we can be grateful for in a spirit of unity. Even if we are not a homogenous group together, we can still come together and have those bright moments of mutual thanksgiving with one another, as the Pilgrims and Wampanoag did those many years ago. While such harmony was not sustained for a very long time following the first Thanksgiving, I do think it is well and appropriate to see the first Thanksgiving as a bright point of realistic hope in a complicated history, and let it remind us that coming together in a spirit of gratitude despite our differences is possible. Even if it's not as picture-perfect as we would like, even if the past leading up to now is messy, and even if the future has a tone of uncertainty, perhaps one of the ultimate acts we can do against the greed, hatred and violence that is pervading our world is to deliberately come together in a spirit of thankfulness, respect and love for one another. Even if it's not perfect, that's ok. Even an imperfect attempt at making the world a bit more grateful, harmonious and loving is something to be thankful for.


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