The Tradition of Thanksgiving


Upon researching, one would be surprised at the disparity of facts surrounding our traditional Thanksgiving celebration and the early Thanksgivings recorded in History.

Today families gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day for the feast set out before them. Hours of cooking go into the preparation for this special meal. Families travel miles to be together on this holiday. A prayer of thanksgiving is usually said before the turkey is cut and everyone digs into the nearest bowl and the passing begins until each plate is filled with more food than one should eat in a week, much less at one sitting. As the dinner ends, everyone is as stuffed as the turkey was when dinner began. But what has been celebrated?

Thanksgiving Celebrations of Today

It’s true people think of what they have to be thankful for at this time of year. Maybe it is a silent prayer of thanks that Uncle Joe is still around while battling his bout of cancer or that your employer’s latest cut-backs did not include you, etc. Those are real reasons to give thanks; there’s no doubt about that. But has anyone thought of the tradition of this holiday? Does anyone know exactly how it got started?

Thanksgiving Day conjures up images of Pilgrims in black hats with buckles, Indians with colorful feathers in their hair, a pretty table set outside loaded with baked turkeys, pumpkin pies and cornucopias over-flowing with fruit and vegetables. What’s wrong with this picture? Besides the obvious that there were no ovens in which to bake pies, buckles were not worn at that time and Squanto and the Wampanoag Indians did not wear headdresses, this feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians did not even begin the tradition of Thanksgiving. It was just a onetime three-day feast to celebrate the Pilgrims first bountiful harvest.

The One-Time Thanksgiving of 1621

It is true that the harvest of 1621 was bountiful and it was due to the help of the Indians teaching the Pilgrims to farm, hunt, fish and survive the harsh winter. But according to Laura Elliff, Vice President of the Native American Student Association in the article, Cooking the History Books: The Thanksgiving Massacre, “ In 1621, Pilgrims did have a feast but it was not repeated years thereafter. So, it wasn’t the beginning of a Thanksgiving tradition nor did Pilgrims call it a Thanksgiving feast. Pilgrims perceived Indians in relation to the Devil and the only reason why they were invited to that feast was for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands for the Pilgrims.”

This treaty not only secured land, but it also gave the Puritans a peaceful time in which to build their forces and plans to eliminate the Native Americans. Word had already spread throughout England of the wonders of the New World. A group of religious zealots, called Puritans came over by boatloads. Along with them came many murderers and thieves. The Puritans were leaving England to practice and start their own religion in a new country. They soon began stealing more land and killing or capturing Native Americans as slaves.

The Beginning of the Thanksgiving Tradition in 1637

In truth, the beginning of the tradition of Thanksgiving was a day giving thanks for an Indian massacre of about 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe. They had gathered for the purpose of celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance ceremony. During the early morning hours their longhouse was surrounded and they were ordered outside. As they came out they were shot down or clubbed. The women and children huddled indoors in fear, as their building was set ablaze. They were burned alive.

According to William Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chair of the anthropology department of the University of Connecticut, “The Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

So in conclusion one could surmise that our present day Thanksgiving is a combination of history and myth. One pictures the scenes as in advertisements of the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting together at the Thanksgiving table in peace and friendship. While the circumstances were not as what is portrayed, what better day is there for a prayer that one day all mankind can live in peace and harmony.

Our Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving. For them it is a day of mourning. A lesson should be learned here.