From the Pilgrims First Thanksgiving to the present day, the holiday offers different things to people. The history of Thanksgiving in America is unique.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday, designating the last Thursday in November each year as a conciliatory gesture to bring North and South together. Since then, the tradition has grown to encompass many different reasons for its celebration. However, Thanksgiving in America was assigned a minor role in the over two hundred year span between Lincoln’s time and the First Thanksgiving honored by the Pilgrims in October, 1621.
The Pilgrims First Thanksgiving in Plymouth
William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, declared a feast of thanksgiving that took place in October, 1621 and lasted for three days. It was to celebrate the bountiful harvest of that year after suffering the terrible winter of 1620-1621 which decimated their population, leaving less than fifty of the original 102 passengers from the Mayflower voyage alive.
The Feast was given also to honor the Native American tribe living near Plymouth, the Wampanoags, who were instrumental in teaching the European settlers how to plant crops in the New World, among other skills. One in particular, Squanto, was the most helpful to the Pilgrims, and lived with them in their settlement for the rest of his life. Around ninety Native Americans shared in the thanksgiving feast.
Thanksgiving in America: the Two Hundred Years between 1621 and 1863
After the 1621 feast, informal thanksgivings were held by the Pilgrims, depending on the success of the harvest for that year, and other groups of colonials until the 1770s, when the Continental Congress suggested a national day for thanks to be given. George Washington was the first president to issue a proclamation for the holiday, which afterwards fell into sporadic practice again.
New York State instituted an annual custom in 1817 which promoted, by the mid-1800s, the unofficial custom of celebrating a thanksgiving by many other states. However, it wasn’t until 1863 and the official proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving by Abraham Lincoln that the holiday finally took hold in America. Since that time, each president has issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated usually on the fourth Thursday in November every year. Congress made the decree official in 1941.
Thanksgiving Celebrations in Other Cultures
Thanksgivings have been celebrated in many cultures throughout the centuries. Following are some of them:
- The Egyptians – The celebration, held in springtime, honored the harvest god Min.
- The Hebrews- Celebrated in autumn, Sukkoth, a harvest festival has been held for 3000 years.
- The Greeks – Each autumn to celebrate the goddess of grains, Demeter, Thesmosphoria was held.
- The Romans – Held on October 4, Cerelia honored the grain goddess Ceres.
- The Chinese – The harvest festival of Chung Ch’ui was held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month.
In Canada, Thanksgiving Day falls on the second Monday in October. The celebration of the holiday was first observed in 1879 and made official by the Canadian Parliament in 1957. The Canadian Thanksgiving Holiday emanates from the informal European practice for hundreds of years which was brought to the New World. Canadians have pretty much the same fare on this day as Americans do, with the turkey as the focal point of the traditional meal.
The Turkey and Thanksgiving in America
Native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States, the wild turkey, once touted by Benjamin Franklin as a respectable native of North America, became the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving in America. There is no verifiable evidence that the bird was eaten at the Pilgrims First Thanksgiving, however, it was reported that it was hunted as a food staple in Plymouth. It is unknown how it invariably became tied to the holiday.
The male turkey, or Tom, is larger and more colorful than the female, or Hen, because of its natural need to attract and mate with the female. The turkey’s meat is of excellent quality and can be prepared in many ways, even deep fried, with baking the most popular. Millions of Americans enjoy the bird along with cranberry sauce, mashed white and sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie as some of the traditional accompaniments to the holiday meal.
Thanksgiving in America and the National Day of Mourning
The National Day of Mourning is celebrated each year at the top of Coles Hill near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day. Native Americans and their supporters gather there to lend their voices to the fact that even though the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving symbolized the cooperation and shared respect of two different cultures, one European and one Native, in subsequent years, exploitation and intolerance on the part of the settlers toward the Native Americans prevailed.
The annual event began in 1970, when Wampanoag leader Frank James was denied to speak after being invited to by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Commonwealth found out that Mr. James’ speech on that day contained strong sentiments of anger toward the oppression shown to Native Americans throughout American History after the peace treaty between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag deteriorated into King Philip’s War and white violence and suppression began.
Thanksgiving in America Today
It is estimated that 107 million American homes will celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year. The first professional football game was played on the holiday in the NFL by the Detroit Lions as a gimmick to attract fans in 1934. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade hosted in New York City is the most famous of many given on this day annually, and features tv personalities and many themed floats with Santa Claus bringing up the rear, officially kicking off the opening of the Christmas season in America. So, Thanksgiving in America has become both a solemn and beloved holiday for many and different types throughout the nation.