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Thanksgiving Throughout  History


As this month is November, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving. How many people know the history of Thanksgiving? The history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a bit more complicated than you might think.   There have been various days of thanks throughout history, but there is one most people look at as the origin of our modern holiday. Most people know the story of the Pilgrims as learned in elementary school so we will start there, but that is far from the whole story.


In 1620, the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower.  They left England due to religious persecution, followed soon by another religious group, the Puritans. They tried to get through their first harsh winter, but their attempt at communal living had not been successful. They encountered an Indian translator and guide, named Squanto, the last of the Patuxent tribe, who could speak English because he had been kidnapped by earlier settlers and had spent some time in England.  By the next year, 1621, those who were still alive, Thanksgiving was celebrated as what we now think of as the first Thanksgiving.  However, it probably didn’t include the food we often associate with it.  Turkey was likely not on the menu nor were any of the pies we now think of.  What it did include was duck or similar water fowl, venison, pumpkin and various sea food. They also held another feast two years later. Today the Pilgrims are most associated with the idea of religious freedom, since they had escaped Britain due to persecution. However, the idea would not fully be realized at first as the Pilgrims weren’t always keen on respecting religious beliefs of others in their own communities. It was only after many battles between Puritans, Quakers, Catholics and others that ideas of religious freedom for all were beginning to be realized.


Since then, there have been several other days of Thanksgiving. In 1777, the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving following the victory at the battle of Saratoga. Then in 1789, within a year of becoming president, George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday on November 26th, to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution. While it was a national celebration, it wasn’t meant to be an annual event. Gradually, individual states adopted Thanksgiving, but without a unified date.


The next major declaration of a day of Thanksgiving occurred in the middle of the Civil War in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving.  As a matter of tradition, Americans started celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.  It wasn’t until November 26, 1941, that FDR finally made Thanksgiving a legally recognized national holiday, declared only a few weeks before he would declare war after Pearl Harbor.


The pattern, you may have seen, has been that Thanksgiving was declared during or immediately after, some of the hardest times in American history.   These days of thanks were meant as reminders to always give thanks for what we have, even in the hardest of times.  They started out, very much religious feasts.


Today, Thanksgiving is seen by many as the start of the shopping season for Christmas, black Friday has crept in to consume Thanksgiving night. So, much like Christmas that follows it, Thanksgiving has lost much of its meaning in the American mind.  There is also the tradition that originated at some point of the President pardoning a turkey.  The President is able to pardon criminals, but the idea of pardoning a turkey seems truly bizarre.


What can we be thankful for now?  With everything that is going on in the world and in our country, there are always still things to be thankful for.


I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.