The Unique History of Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s time to prepare for family, feasting, and football. Timeless traditions surround this holiday, and it seems as though every American is aware of its origins. As a kid, I remember dressing up as a Pilgrim or Native American to celebrate a Thanksgiving feast just as they did in 1621. We learned that these two very different people came together to celebrate and feast together, which is the reason why we celebrate the same thing today. But, there are many facts about this historical event that the average person, including me until I wrote this blog, does not know.

When the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe joined together to feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, they had no intentions of celebrating on a yearly basis. For them, it was just a big get-together where everyone brought a dish of food to share. So, this was technically the first American potluck during the colonial days. The Pilgrims often dedicated days of thanksgiving to God when harvests or other good things occurred. When they finished feasting on their harvest with the neighboring Indians, they dedicated themselves to acts of thanksgiving.

This custom grew as the colonies expanded, and by the 19th century, many U.S. States adopted the holiday as an annual event. Abraham Lincoln selected the final Thursday of November as the day to celebrate Thanksgiving in 1863, but Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 to increase the shopping days before Christmas. Every U.S. president has delivered a Thanksgiving proclamation of some sort. However, the common pardon that is given out to one turkey did not begin until 1989 with George H.W. Bush. This tradition calls for the U.S. president to pardon a domesticated turkey from the Thanksgiving Day festivities for the rest of its life. Ever since, the turkey pardon has been an entertaining and enjoyable tradition for all to watch, unless you’re a turkey.

The large amounts of food are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving. Every year, I eat far too much and usually regret it, but isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Every family dines differently on this day, but the most popular food for Thanksgiving is turkey. I grew up eating turkey every Thanksgiving, so I cannot imagine one without it. Despite this popular practice, there is no record of turkey being eaten by the Pilgrims in 1621. Instead, they ate venison as the main dish. Also, the popular Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie, was not on the menu during the first Thanksgiving either. The Pilgrims were really missing out.

Perhaps the oddest part about the history of Thanksgiving is the various towns that claim to have started the Thanksgiving tradition before the Plymouth settlers. A small town in Texas called San Elizario makes claims for having the first Thanksgiving in America. In 1598, a Spanish explorer led a group of settlers across the Mexican desert. When they finally reached the banks of the Rio Grande River, they celebrated with thanksgiving. This Texan town is not the only place to declare its Thanksgiving claims. Berkeley Plantation in Virginia also argues that they started the tradition in 1619, just two years before the Plymouth settlers celebrated. Both towns reenact their own Thanksgiving Day events and defend their claims as the original location of Thanksgiving.

Regardless, thanksgiving has been a huge part of our culture. Many things have changed, but the values remain the same. It’s a time when we can relax with others and slide into a coma from all the delicious food. More importantly, it’s a time when everyone can reflect on their lives and give thanks for what they have been blessed with.

Written by Jack

Image Credit

Works Cited:

Shenkman, Rick. “Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving.” History News Network, 2001. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/406.

History.com Editors. “Mayflower Myths.” HISTORY, 2009.https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/mayflower-myths.

Bathroom Readers Institute. “6 Things Everyone Believes About Thanksgiving That AreAbsolutely Untrue.” Reader’s Digest, 2018. https://www.rd.com/culture/thanksgiving-myths/.

Monkman, Betty C. “Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey.” The White House Historical Association, 27 September 2018.  https://www.whitehousehistory.org/pardoning-the-thanksgiving-turkey.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. “How FDR Changed Thanksgiving.” ThoughtCo., 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-fdr-changed-thanksgiving-1779285.

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