Ah, Thanksgiving! The federal holiday held on the fourth Thursday of November is typically celebrated with friends and family, usually over a bountiful feast of dishes such as turkey, mashed potatoes, and pies. There are football games on TV and crazy retail sales in stores and online. If you’re curious as to the roots of this quintessentially American holiday, here’s a little history lesson.
The Myth of Thanksgiving
Since the 1920s, American schoolchildren have been taught that the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful, celebratory meal shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans to toast the success of the fledgling English settlement in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. It’s a lovely little vignette that many contemporary Americans regard as the basis of the holiday. While this happy myth of a multicultural dinner is rooted in a touch of truth, it doesn’t tell the whole story—the complicated story—of Thanksgiving.
The Real History of Thanksgiving
The Pilgrims, members of a persecuted Puritan sect in England, arrived on the North American continent in 1620, and in 1621, they did celebrate surviving their first winter there. But what they considered a “thanksgiving” celebration was actually a day of fasting and prayer, and they likely held this thanksgiving in March.
Come autumn, the Pilgrims celebrated again—this time in a “rejoicing,” or a fête more akin to a contemporary Thanksgiving—as they were grateful for a bountiful harvest, courtesy of the Wampanoag tribe who taught them basic survival skills like farming and foraging. Very little information exists about this “first” autumnal Thanksgiving, but according to nonprofit organization Plimoth Plantation, one primary source noted that a three-day festival was held to celebrate the harvest, and some 90 Wampanoag attended. At the time, such harvest festivals were commonplace worldwide, across cultures, including in England and North America.
A darker thanksgiving, however, took place in 1637, when the colonists celebrated the massacre of a Pequot village. For the next few centuries—and even into the contemporary day—colonists and Native Americans would share a conflict-ridden existence marred by massacres, enslavement, and population-decimating disease.
How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday
The first attempt at establishing a national Thanksgiving holiday happened in 1789, when President George Washington advocated for a public day of thanks to honor the end of the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Constitution. But Thanksgiving was only formally put on the calendar in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, at the behest of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who wanted to help the nation heal from the trauma of the Civil War through the holiday.
In its early years, the holiday had absolutely nothing to do with the harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. That narrative was only introduced around the turn of the 20th century. As the number of immigrants entering the United States grew rapidly between 1890 and 1920, Protestant Americans pushed for a strong national identity, one that author James Baker suggests was of colonial ideology in his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. Thus the “wholesome” story of a Pilgrim and Native American dinner party was born, promoting peaceful relations between cultures and a focus on religion—what Americans thought their country should stand for. It did not, however, acknowledge the tenuous relationship between colonists and Native Americans.
Native American Perspectives on Thanksgiving Today
Given the complex history of Thanksgiving and its typically whitewashed presentation, some Native Americans do not celebrate the holiday. Instead, many observe the National Day of Mourning, a day of remembrance established in 1970. (We’d like to point out the irony that November is National Native American Heritage Month.) Other Native Americans, however, are open to the idea of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks, just as their ancestors did—without indulging in the embellished narrative.
We recommend reading statements from Native American advocacy groups like Native Hope to learn about the Thanksgiving holiday through the lens of Native American communities. We also recommend reading this article published in Smithsonian Magazine in conjunction with the National Museum of the American Indian that shares Indigenous perspectives about the holiday, as well as this article penned by Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe for Time.
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