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unraveling thanksgiving

To mark National Native American Heritage Month, Curator of Emigration Liam Corry explores the tradition of Thanksgiving and unravels its history.

Table setting with plates, leaves and candlestick
Thanksgiving is a holiday in the United States which takes place on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a time for friends and family to come together, often travelling long distances, for usually a turkey dinner.
Thanksgiving is associated with the Pilgrim Fathers, the mainly Separatist Puritans who landed in America in 1620. The holiday is now based on a feast the Pilgrims had with their Native American neighbours a year later.

Early holidays 

The Christian Church, before the Reformation in England, had around 95 Church (Holy Days) holidays along with 52 Sundays. On these days, people were to attend church and not work. After the English Reformation in the 1500s, the number of Church holidays was reduced to 27. However, Puritans wanted to get rid of them all, including Christmas and Easter. This was one of the reasons why Christmas was a minor holiday in most parts of North America for long periods.  

Puritans only wanted to celebrate the Sabbath and days of fasting or days of thanksgiving. Fasting was a way of appealing to God for mercy in the face of major threats, and feasting on Thanksgiving days was for victories or bountiful harvests. England also had a history of harvest festivals dating back to pre-Christian times marked with feasting. 

The first Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving Day in America is popularly dated back to the autumn of 1621. The Pilgrim Fathers landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. It was 1621 when they celebrated their first harvest along with Native Americans.  

This couldn't have been a Puritan Thanksgiving as it lacked the usual religious service and wouldn't have involved Native Americans. Puritan celebrations were typically confined to a single day, unlike the recorded three days of this Thanksgiving.

There was a colony at Jamestown from 1607 and there is a detailed record of a Thanksgiving taking place near that settlement in 1619. It is very probable that earlier Thanksgivings took place from 1610 onwards in Virginia. 

During the colonial period, Thanksgiving would have been celebrated without real reference to what is now traditionally perceived as the ‘first’ Thanksgiving. It was moveable in relation to its date and what may have been celebrated, although it would have been close to its Puritan, essentially religious, roots. 

A national day 

During the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and its aftermath, Thanksgiving days were held to celebrate military victories.

The Continental Congress and the first U.S. President, George Washington, declared Thanksgiving Day to be on the last Thursday in November. However, its national recognition was inconsistent. Many states did have an annual Thanksgiving Day, but the date differed from state to state throughout the year.

During the American Civil War in 1863, the present institution of Thanksgiving Day was ordained. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of celebration. The holiday was to raise the country’s spirits amid a bitter war and to bring people together. 

Traditions differed across regions, but a common thread was a substantial meal, often centred around turkey and vegetables, accompanied by an expression of gratitude to God. Over time, Thanksgiving evolved to include both major and minor sports events, along with the emergence of parades. It wasn't until 1900 that the 'traditional' narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers and Native Americans became widely recognised in public consciousness.

White colonists had fought the Frontier Wars with Native Americans since the 1600s. Conflicts occurred on many occasions and at times Native Americans were enslaved. In less than 300 years they were forced onto small reservations of generally poor land, where once they had freedom of movement across the whole continent. The ‘Indian Problem’ was over, and Native American people and some of their culture could be appropriated as 'American'. Smiling Native Americans could be seen with happy settlers in Thanksgiving pageants. 

Save the date – but which date? 

The date was always the last Thursday in November, however, in 1939 there were five Thursdays in the month. President F.D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, felt that this left too little time for the Christmas season and for shopping for Christmas. He declared the second last Thursday as Thanksgiving Day with the idea that in future it would be the second last Thursday rather than the last.   

This led to a split in the country – about half the states went with the last and half with the second last Thursday. They were popularly called the Democratic or Republican Thanksgiving respectively. Texas could not decide and took both as a holiday. In 1940 and 1941 F.D. Roosevelt declared the second last Thursday as the official day. The country continued to be split as to which one to take until a compromise came in 1942 with Congress deciding on the fourth Thursday. So every five years out of seven, it is on the last Thursday. 

Reactions to and reflections on Thanksgiving 

Today, many Native American people have mixed feelings on Thanksgiving. Their land started to be occupied by the new settlers not long after the ‘original Thanksgiving celebration’. European diseases were introduced that killed a high proportion of the native population, who had no immunity to them. European culture and religions were forced on them. They were treated as second class citizens in their own country.  

However, some do celebrate the holiday in the traditional ‘American’ way. 

Tradition is not a fossil from former times, but rather an evolving story where parts of the meaning have been lost, different meanings understood and new meanings developed. Through history, we explore the firmer foundations of facts and evidence.