A History of Thanksgiving

Source: www.addictinginfo.org
Source: http://www.addictinginfo.org

Everyone knows the cliché story of Thanksgiving ; the peaceful union of early European settlers and Native American Indians who shared feast that symbolized acceptance amongst these clashing cultures. However, there are unknown details of this well known historic event that may catch one by surprise.

The arrival of European settlers into early America, known as the “New World”, wasn’t as simple as some may have assumed. First of all, the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean didn’t exactly go as planned. In the September of 1620, the Mayflower, containing 102 seperatists seeking religious refuge better known as Pilgrims, left Plymouth, England for a rough 66 days at sea. When they reached the east coast shore, they soon realized that they had strayed from their destination of the mouth of the Hudson River, and anchored at the tip of Cape Cod instead. After their brutal voyage, the Pilgrims were quickly encountered the harsh winter, where nearly half the population of the original settlers were killed from exposure, scurvy and fatal diseases.

Source: blogs.extension.org
Source: blogs.extension.org

When spring arrived, the remaining pilgrims finally began to settle ashore. To their surprise, they were greeted with an English speaking Abenaki Indian. He left to return a few days later with another Native American, Squanto. However, this wasn’t the first time Squanto was exposed to the white European culture. In fact, he had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his home land with ship of explorers. With his experience with this alien culture, Squanto was able to teach the weak pilgrims basic survival in this exotic land for the settlers, including how to cultivate corn, remove sap from trees, hunt and catch fish, and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Yet his most memorable help towards the Pilgrims was the alliance he formed with the local Wampanoag tribe. On a bittersweet note, this peaceful relationship between Indian and European settler that lasted nearly 50 years wasn’t an example followed by future settlers. Hence, this relationship formed what we call “Thankgiving”.

The actual event of Thanksgiving occurred sometime between September and November of 1621. In celebration of their first successful harvesting season, Governer William Bradford organized a large feast. As a gesture of gratitude, about 90 of their Native American Indian allies were invited. Although the term wasn’t created for decades later, this was the first Thanksgiving meal. However, the menu at the feast isn’t exactly what we would call traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Although there are few records recovered about the feast, it was discovered that the Wampanoag tribe arrived with five deer. Other foods probably included berries, fish, clams, plums and boiled pumpkin. It is also known that much of the meal was primarily prepared using Indian spices and cooking techniques. Sadly, it is assumed there were no desserts due to a shortage in sugar. The feast lasted an entire three days.

Source: www.publichealthnewswire.org
Source: http://www.publichealthnewswire.org

The interpretation of the meaning of Thanksgiving became a general symbol of love and gratitude, but didn’t become an immediate holiday. Years following, colonists would celebrate the holiday at random dates to celebrate good harvest and survival through deadly winters. It wasn’t until 1789 when George Washington became our first president and declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday to take place on November 26. Though during this era, the thanks given on this holiday was directed towards a newborn country and official dependence from Britain. However, although it was announced by Washington as a national event, the holiday had not become annual yet. It wasn’t until the 19th author of the famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and advocate to establish Thanksgiving as an annual holiday met with President Lincoln and discussed creating the holiday to create hope and unity in the nation in the years leading up to the Civil War. IN 1863, Licoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation. The last time the holiday was altered occurred when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. Traditionally, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday in November, but in the wake of the Great Depression, retailers begged FDR to change the date to the second- to-last Thursday in November to give consumers an extra week of shopping before Christmas. This lead to much controversy. The date change lead to different dates off from work and school and split families on the holiday, and statistics even showed that the extra wasn’t benefiting producers. Votes amongst the states were taken, and finally 1941, due to much confusion, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. The holiday has stayed permanent ever since.

Over the centuries, Thanksgiving has been tampered with endlessly, but we can all agree that it projects the same message of gratitude. The holiday is ultimately meant to bring together families and share thanks amongst each other. So next time you sit down to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal, think about those Pilgrims and Native Americans who so long ago shared a not-so-traditional Thanksgiving.

-Addie Pavelko

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