Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? The answer may not be what you think—it’s both more complicated than the “pilgrims and Indians” narrative many of us learned in school and less sinister than many “myth-busting” articles have recently claimed. However, it does involve lobsters, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the holiday shopping season.
Feasting and Merrymaking in the Colonies
Ritual rhythms of fasting and feasting existed long before Americans began to celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Many Native American tribes held feasts to commemorate the fall harvest and give thanks to the Creator. Christians of different denominations practiced fasting in supplication for relief during times of difficulty and feasting to give thanks to God during times of plenty.
After a harsh winter that killed many of the Mayflower’s original passengers, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they called themselves) began the work of establishing the village of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay. About fifty Pilgrims and ninety Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe celebrated for three days following a successful harvest in the fall of 1621. Since seventeenth-century sources do not identify this as a true thanksgiving observance in the religious sense, some historians hold that this was rather more of a harvest feast.
It may be that the first “true” Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1623—true because it was a feast following a period of religious fasting and because it was sanctioned by civil authority. Nevertheless, the 1621 Thanksgiving was a cross-cultural event with food, recreation, and expressions of gratitude.
There are only two primary sources documenting the 1621 feast, written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Winslow writes that the settlers had gone fowling so that they could “in a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.” He describes three days of feasting and entertaining “many of the Indians.” These included King Massasoit along with ninety men of the Wampanoag tribe, who had hunted five deer to present as a gift to the Plymouth settlers. Winslow rejoices, “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
This feast of plenty likely consisted of the venison brought by the Wampanoag, the wild fowl hunted by the settlers (possibly turkeys or ducks), seafood such as mussels and lobster, “Indian corn,” and vegetables native to the area like onions, beans, spinach, and turnips. Cranberries? Yes, but not in the form of sugary sauce. Pumpkin? Perhaps, but definitely not pumpkin pie.
Was this the first Thanksgiving-type celebration in the New World? Nope. Historians have recorded harvest feasts predating this celebration. The earliest in 1565 was a gathering of Spanish explorers and members of the Timucua tribe in St. Augustine, Florida. Harvest feasts among British settlers in Virginia were common as early as 1607. Winslow’s account of the 1621 feast simply surfaced out of obscurity around 1820 in a collection called Chronicles of Our Pilgrim Fathers, whereas records of similar events were not well known. In the 1830s, those who read this account saw similarities with Thanksgiving celebrations in New England and then deemed it the “first Thanksgiving.”
Another harvest feast took place in 1637 following a night attack on a Pequot Indian village. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, officially declared a day of Thanksgiving in honor of colonial soldiers who had carried out the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children. In recent decades, many articles have claimed that this is the true origin of Thanksgiving. This perspective, while raising awareness about the harrowing injustices that European settlers committed in their dealings with Native Americans, nevertheless overlooks several Thanksgiving observances that came before, and it is most likely inaccurate to claim it as the basis for our modern Thanksgiving celebration.
Following these early observances, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated throughout the area of New England. The highly religious meanings attached to such feasts were overshadowed by the sentiment of gathering the family around the dinner table, a meaning that took on greater significance during Thanksgiving feasts in the 1700s and 1800s.
Thanksgiving as a National Observance
George Washington proclaimed a one-time “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” on Thursday, November 26, 1789. It didn’t have much to do with the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and there was no mention of Native Americans. Rather, the holiday was to be a public day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” The holiday was later commemorated on different days and months, and various states scheduled their own Thanksgiving celebrations. Until after the Civil War, Thanksgiving was still celebrated mainly in New England.
Enter Sarah Josepha Hale, a highly influential writer and magazine editor of the nineteenth century. Besides authoring the beloved nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale served as the editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1837 to 1877. This publication was the most widely circulated magazine of the time and influenced fashion, cooking, and lifestyle trends for women throughout the United States.
Hale took an interest in turning Thanksgiving into a nationally recognized holiday. She advocated for 17 years to promote Thanksgiving, publishing editorials in Godey’s and writing presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln. She felt that a day of thanksgiving could help heal a divided nation from the wounds of the Civil War. Hale also published recipes and promoted traditions that helped to popularize the holiday throughout the country as a day of national unity and family gathering. Her concept of Thanksgiving did not reflect the food or festivities at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and the idea of Thanksgiving was still not commonly connected with the early colonists.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Thanksgiving would be celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November. As Hale had envisioned, it was seen as a day of unification and gratitude that the country desperately needed following the Civil War.
However, the spirit of gratitude didn’t stop business leaders from requesting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the date to the second-to-last Thursday in November, thereby extending the holiday shopping season and boosting the economy. This plan, known as “Franksgiving,” was met with fierce opposition. Sixteen states decided to go on celebrating on the last Thursday in November, and the rest adopted the new date.
Finally, in 1941, Congress set the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of Thanksgiving, which still holds today.
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
The country is now unified in the date that we celebrate Thanksgiving, but are we unified in the meaning we attribute to the holiday?
Public interest in the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims began to grow around the turn of the twentieth century, shifting attention to the 1621 harvest celebration as the origin of Thanksgiving. American schools began to use Thanksgiving as a way to teach students about citizenship, drawing on the good-natured interaction between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag as an example. Some have criticized that by so doing, we have presented a cherry-picked image of relations between European settlers and Native Americans, omitting a long history of brutality. The pain felt by Native Americans both then and now cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. In protest, many Native Americans and others observe a Day of Mourning at Plymouth in lieu of Thanksgiving, honoring those who were killed in the Pequot massacre and educating others about the history of colonial relations with Native Americans.
Some see Thanksgiving as a day of family gathering, of delicious food, and of interrogation about their love life or plans for the future. Some see it as a day of prayer and gratitude. Some see it as a day for watching football. Some see it as a day that perpetuates inaccurate ideas about the nature of interactions between Native Americans and European settlers, which involved more death, destruction, and bloodshed than many of us would care to know about. Thanksgiving can be any and all of these things to different people.
But perhaps we can see it as a day to heal divisions in an imperfect country we call home, to express thanks to those we love, and to give to others.
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“Congress Establishes Thanksgiving.” National Archives. Reviewed November 3, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving.
History.com Editors. “Thanksgiving 2020.” Updated November 13, 2020. History. https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving.
Primary Sources for “The First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth. https://pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
Salam, Maya. “Everything You Learned about Thanksgiving is Wrong.” November 21, 2017. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/us/thanksgiving-myths-fact-check.html.
Sherman, Sean. “The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday.” Published November 19, 2018, and updated November 11, 2019. Time. https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/.
Strauss, Valerie. “Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving Every Year. It Isn’t What You Think.” November 24, 2016. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/26/why-we-celebrate-thanksgiving-every-year-it-isnt-what-you-think/.
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