About two years ago, I took a one-off job writing short English-language texts about U.S. customs. My first assignment was to write about Thanksgiving. Though I’ve long since learned what we were taught in history books isn’t always the truth, I always find it fascinating to take a deeper look into the ways we celebrate now and what the first feast must have looked like.
Now, that I’m up East, there’s only one thing left on my bucket list. Plymouth Rock. So, as you sit down to enjoy a meal with family and friends to give thanks for the year past and the year to come, I hope you’ll enjoy this little story.
Thanksgiving – Level 3
Thanksgiving is a holiday in the United States celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November and in Canada on the second Monday of October. It is a time for family and friends to come together to give thanks and celebrate an abundant harvest.
Before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, days of thanksgiving were a regular occurrence for them in England. These events were for religious reasons, abundant harvest, and safe arrivals.
After arriving safely in the New World, the Pilgrims were taught by the Native Americans the best vegetables to grow, how to fish, and what animals to hunt to guarantee survival. It was this food that was at the first Thanksgiving.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in America between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621. It is often thought to have been celebrated due to safe landing at Plymouth Rock and an abundance of food.
There is very little known about the first Thanksgiving. What we do know comes from two letters. One of the letters described the number of Pilgrims, the number of Native Americans, and the kind of food they ate. From the letter, we know there were more Native Americans than Pilgrims and that they came not as invited guests, but came to the event on their own. They brought five deer to share and were welcomed to the feast. In celebration, the Pilgrims shared their abundance giving thanks for a safe landing, an abundant harvest, and new friends.
Today, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with their families and friends. Like the Pilgrims, they also give thanks for abundance, safe travels, and kinship. While these reasons for celebration are the same, the American table serves very different food from the first Thanksgiving. This day also begins the holiday season, including Black Friday, a shopping day in the United States for an economic boost to keep funds “in the black” or in the positive column.
Traditional Thanksgiving foods such as turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie became popular in the early 1800s. Sarah Josepha Hale, the magazine editor for Godey’s Lady Book, wrote many editorials with suggested recipes. While these foods are the staples, every region throughout North America adds its own special recipes. For example, a traditional Thanksgiving table in the South includes the basics such as turkey and stuffing, but also biscuits, sweet potatoes, mincemeat, and pecan pies. In New England, a holiday table includes seafood.
It was Sarah who worked hard writing letters and articles to make Thanksgiving Day a recognized national holiday. Though George Washington was the first President to declare it a holiday, it was Abraham Lincoln who made it an official holiday nationwide. But, it wasn’t signed into law until Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. At first, Roosevelt wanted to have the holiday be on the second Thursday of November to increase holiday shopping time. Others wanted it on the last Thursday of the month. In 1939, when the permanent date was being discussed there were five Thursdays in November and the fourth Thursday was a compromise.
The presidential pardoning of the turkey is a fun fact and as much a part of the American holiday traditions as the turkey on the table. Though the presidential pardon of the turkey didn’t become official until George H.W. Bush, it began with Abraham Lincoln. As the story goes, Lincoln’s son took a liking to the turkey being fattened for the table and when Lincoln learned of this, he didn’t want to disappoint his son and “pardoned” the turkey.
In the 40s, the Turkey Federation began to present turkeys to the president in office. While not all presidents pardoned the turkey, it was John F. Kennedy who gave the first turkey a reprieve, saying “Let’s keep him going”. Though many attribute the first modern day pardoning to Harry S. Truman, the Truman Library has stated there is nothing on record to prove it.
Because there are only two documents from the first Thanksgiving, Americans have made it their own with individual customs and traditions by region. Even the fashions associated with the first Thanksgiving are born of myth.
The buckled shoes and hat came later in the telling. Proper fashion would have brightly colored clothes for both the women and the men. The black and white clothing we see in pictures comes from the style of the Puritans, a religious denomination that came to the New World. Not all who came to the New World were religious. Many were people just looking for a fresh start.
One tradition that is distinctly American is the Thanksgiving holiday football game. The first football games held on this holiday were in the 1800s, but were first filmed in the 1950s. Since the arrival of televised football, this sport has become a standard Thanksgiving tradition in many American homes. Sometimes, family is invited for the meal and when it’s “game time”, friends will also come to share in the festivities.
Before the first Thanksgiving in the New World, the British had many days in which they celebrated and gave thanks. Often, these days were in the Autumn to celebrate their harvest or for religious reasons.
One of these days of thanksgiving was to celebrate the thwarted Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when Guy Fawkes, a member of the plot was arrested while guarding explosives under the House of Lords. To celebrate King James I’s survival of the attempt on his life, people lit bonfires around London, and a few months later the Observance of the 5th November Act, we know it as Guy Fawkes’ Day, enforced an annual day of thanksgiving to celebrate the plot’s failure.
Though there were many days of thanksgiving celebrated in England, the place we think of when we think of Thanksgiving is the United States and all its traditions. But, there are places all over the world that celebrate Thanksgiving. Though the dates, customs, and traditions may be different, what they do have in common is family, friends, food, and fun.