It’s time for another deep dive into the History of a Holiday. Today we’re going to cover Thanksgiving. Luckily, this is something a little more straight forward than Halloween’s two thousand year history.
The First Thanksgiving
There is a long history to the holiday pre-dating what we’ve often be taught was the first Thanksgiving. Among the religious Separatists and the Puritans, there was a tradition of providential holidays. In times of great challenge, it was traditional to declare a religious fast and appeal to God for deliverance. In times of great success and abundance, great feasts to Thank God were a common occurrence. Going farther back, harvest celebrations can be found among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who feasted and gave thanks to their respective gods for a successful harvest.
Throughout the colonization of America, there were multiple “Thanksgivings” held. In 1565 there was a Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida to thank God for the crew’s safe passage from Europe. Another was held in 1619 in Virgina, proclaimed as a “Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God,” by the British Settlers there.
Our traditional “Thanksgiving” featured in numerous TV Specials and elementary school history classes was’t held until 1621. Perhaps the success of the Plymouth Colonists has made it a better recorded and remembered celebration. Those colonists, commonly known as the Pilgrims, had just taken in their first successful harvest. Per the tradition, it was a time of abundance and a feast was in order. The feast at the time would have consisted of wild game like Deer and Turkeys, and corn from the harvest, cooked using American Native spices and techniques. There were no ovens and little sugar at the time to prepare any of the sweets we commonly feast on today.
Thanksgiving By State and Nation
In the years to follow, Thanksgiving remained as a special event that could come around multiple times every year. The Continental Congress would declare multiple celebrations some years. George Washington would issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 not because it was November, but because the US Constitution had been passed. In the 1800s, the states would begin declaring an annual Thanksgiving, but each state celebrated on a different date and in a different way. The southern states didn’t adopt the celebration at all.
Ironically, Thanksgiving became a Federal Holiday at the height of the Civil War, when the country was most divided. Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving would be held annually on the last Thursday of November. He focused not on giving thanks, but asking God to care for the widows and orphans, and to heal the nation in it’s time of war. For the most part, we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving at the same time ever since.
Over all this time, the holiday has morphed into what we know it as today. The need to be thankful has become an undertone, the religious ties have been cut, and in large part, we’ve made it a day of family feasting and TV marathons while we lay near comatose on the couch, stuffed to the gills with Turkey and Pumpkin.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.