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Thanksgiving: An American Legend

By now, it is likely that we’ve all seen or participated in the social media craze of 30 days of thankfulness leading up to Thanksgiving. Maybe you’re going crazy as you are hosting or just the thought of hanging out with family makes you want to pull out your hair-or not. Growing up, Thanksgiving was one of the best holidays at my house. My whole family were foodies, before being a foodie was even a thing. I think every member was in the kitchen making something yummy. And naturally, we all learned the history of Thanksgiving while still in elementary school. Or did we?

The Legend

The encyclopedia Britannica states that Thanksgiving is a national holiday in which to celebrate the harvest and our blessings. It is modeled on the 1621 harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims of Plymouth, MA and the Wampanoag tribe. Yes, this legend has permeated American society since the 1800’s Plays, stories, and television shows have all retold this story over and over again. It is now a holiday tradition right along with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

According to the legend, a few of the colonists had gone out hunting and returned with as much fowl to feed themselves for one week. Soon about 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe appeared at the gate of the colonists bringing venison, other meats, and beer. Now it’s a party! The two groups socialized for a few days without incident and resulted in a peace treaty. Warm fuzzies. But it wasn’t until October 3, 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving. The Federal government made it a legal holiday in 1898.

The FIRST Thanksgiving

While President Lincoln decreed the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving, it wasn’t the first Thanksgiving. That occurred in 1637 in Groton Connecticut and took place in the summer. The Pequot people were celebrating the Green Corn Ceremony. It marks the beginning of the corn harvest. It involved the community sacrificing the first of the harvest, or green corn, to ensure the success of the rest of the crop. It is a very important celebration for the native community. Pequot territory was approximately 250 square miles in southeastern Connecticut. Today, this area includes the towns of Groton, Ledyard, Stonington, North Stonington and southern parts of Preston and Griswold. But with the arrival of English colonists, trade disputes arose sparking the Pequot War 1636-37. To read more about the war:

On June 5, 1637, Captain Mason attacked a Pequot village during their ceremony massacring everyone. The deeds committed against this tribe are reminiscent of a horror movie. This was only one in a string of massacres with the final one taking place on July 28, 1637. Governor William Bradford, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declare that from that day forward the anniversary shall be a day of Thanksgiving. For 100 years the governors ordered a day of Thanksgiving in honor of the massacres that subdued the Pequot peoples. Thanksgiving Day was a way in which early colonists and Puritans would commemorate their victories of genocide of the Indigenous peoples of America. (Oxendine, 2019; Native Voices, "AD 1637: English settlers burn Pequot village")

Thanksgiving Becomes Official

Modern Thanksgiving is thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale. She wrote letters to politicians for 40 years advocating an official Thanksgiving holiday until President Lincoln complied. But it was a commemoration of war! Lincoln set the day aside in celebration of the bounties that fell upon the union and the military success in war! Yet, the day was not recognized until 1870 at the end of reconstruction. President Lincoln’s address regarding Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving in the 20th Century

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the next to last. Why would he do this you might ask. He wanted to boost the economy! This gave an extra week for Christmas shopping. Back then stores didn’t promote Christmas until AFTER Thanksgiving. What a concept. However, he made this proclamation on Halloween and that just messed everyone up. Needless to say, most citizens were not in favor of the change. This confusion went on for a couple years until along with congress, FDR signed a resolution changing Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday of November effective as of 1942. ("Congress Establishes Thanksgiving". National Archives.)

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

Speaking of consumerism, lets chat about Macy’s and their connection to Thanksgiving. It all began in the Roaring 20’s when America prospered. Macy’s also saw a booming business and by 1924, the store covered an entire block in Manhattan’s Herald Square. To celebrate its expansion, the store decided to throw a Thanksgiving parade, thereby also ushering in the Christmas (shopping) Season. Held on Thanksgiving morning 1924, the parade wasn’t about Thanksgiving, but about Christmas. The parade soon became a holiday tradition. Balloon characters replaced live zoo animals in 1927. Now millions of families tune in to watch the parade full of balloons, floats, celebrities, bands, and broadways shows every year.

Thanksgiving Fare

We all have our favorite Thanksgiving staples at the dinner table that makes it all worth it. Stuffing first appeared in American cookbooks in the late 18th century featuring a bread base. It was during the 1800’s in which pumpkin pie found a place at the table. But that ooey gooey yummy sweet potato covered in perfectly toasted marshmallow was first promoted in 1917 by the (now) Campfire Brand Marshmallow Company. In the wake of WWII jellied cranberry sauce became a staple of the Thanksgiving fare in 1941. Canned foods were quite the convenience and in 1955 Campbells Soup Company came out with green bean casserole. Honestly, the turkey is likely the only food item that is historically accurate regardless of time period. However, it would have been supplemented with other wild game and fish. Are you drooling? Are you hungry?

Be Thankful

I know Thanksgiving has had a horrible history. Something less thankful and more horrific. Through the years the holiday has changed and evolved. Today, to be honest, I think it is more about consumerism than thankfulness or family. And I don’t have words of wisdom to offer. Except for this: Be kind. Be kind to others and be kind to yourself. Holidays are hard. Not all families are warm and fuzzy. Not everyone can afford an extravagant spread.

I can not and will not minimize the atrocities committed against Native Americans and celebrated by settlers as Thanksgiving. Nor can I ignore the consumerism that has taken hold since the turn of the 20th century. But as humans we can find meaning and in honor and remembrance, we can forge a better tomorrow. Even if it is “only” for ourselves or our own family unit. Do what has meaning for you.

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