Over the centuries Thanksgiving in America has meant many things to many people. But did you know that the story of the first Thanksgiving, though fairly accurate, is only piece of the pie of how this traditional day of thanks came to be, says Chris Lewis, an American Studies instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
CUT 1 “The story of the first Thanksgiving is accurate. Its larger place in American culture, however, is much more interesting. The assumption somehow that as a result of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, America is going to celebrate Thanksgiving year in, year out, up until the present is simple wrong. (:20) There were a few harvest celebrations, even Thanksgiving celebrations in colonial America, but they weren’t regular and they weren’t annual.” (:28)
It wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday, says Lewis.
CUT 2 “The major origin of Thanksgiving, the modern Thanksgiving ritual, is Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a day of thanksgiving during the civil war in 1863. (:12) The object of that day of thanksgiving was to celebrate Union victories and to pray for the Union troops in the field.” (:20)
But even then, says Lewis, the Thanksgiving celebration we know today didn’t become a tradition until the early 1900s.
CUT 3 “By the early 20th Century it becomes commercialized. One of the things I think that really strengthens it is both the Depression and World War II. (:09) Rituals and celebrations like this bring the country together and as a result they become engrained in our collective imagination. So after Word War II America regularly celebrates Thanksgiving. It’s part of this larger holiday.” (:26)
What is considered to be the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Plantation in1621, between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims, was not the celebration of thanks as we think of it today, says Lewis. Instead, it was a celebration of the annual harvest and it most likely took place late summer or early fall.
CUT 3 “It’s a celebration of a harvest by the Indians and Pilgrims. It would happen, not in our traditional Thanksgiving, but earlier in the harvest season, probably mid to late September. (:14)
And the often-told story of the Pilgrims and the Indians celebrating and befriending each other is more myth than truth, says Lewis. The two groups tolerated each other out of necessity.
CUT 4 “The Wampanoag want to help the Pilgrims, not because of some simple liking of the Christian English-Americans, but because they wanted to make a military and political alliance with them. (:14) They’re led by a chief called Massasoit. Now he allies with the Pilgrims because he’s afraid of the growing strength of a competing tribe. The competing tribe is called the Narragansett. (:27) And the Pilgrims need the help of the Wampanoags because they, in fact, come during the wintertime and they barely get their crops after surviving a difficult winter.”
What Lewis finds interesting is that the major origin of the holiday, the Civil War, is not associated with the war and a divided country but rather an obscure unity between Indians and New England settlers.
CUT 6 “Our Thanksgiving holiday is a kind of cultural ritual that embodies both real history and real people but with cultural symbolism and mythology. (:15) We’re not really celebrating the real actors and the real characters, we’re celebrating or re-enacting a union between Indians and English peoples that we would like to think somehow symbolizes the hope of American society and the hope of freedom and unity in that society.” (:37)
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November because that is the day Congress declared, in 1941, to be the official day to celebrate Thanksgiving.