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Posted 11/23/2023 in Historical

History of Thanksgiving

History of Thanksgiving

History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday rich in history and tradition, celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada. 

Its origins, symbolism, and evolution over time offer a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and historical tapestry of North America.

Thanksgiving in the Tims Ford Lake AreaThanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925;

Thanksgiving:  Origins and Early Celebrations

The roots of Thanksgiving date back to the early 17th century. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast in present-day Massachusetts, widely acknowledged as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. This event was not only a celebration of the colonists' first successful harvest but also a rare moment of harmony and cooperation between English settlers and Native Americans.

However, it's important to note that similar "thanksgiving" ceremonies were common among indigenous peoples and in other European cultures long before this event. These ceremonies traditionally celebrated the harvest and other blessings of the past year. The concept of giving thanks is, therefore, not unique to this particular historical event but is a more universal human expression of gratitude.

ThanksgivingSchoolchildren acting in a "First Thanksgiving" skit in 1963. Denver Post

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

The evolution of Thanksgiving into a national holiday was a gradual process. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States, calling upon Americans to express their gratitude for the conclusion of the country's war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular magazine Godey's Lady's Book, played a pivotal role in making Thanksgiving a national holiday. After years of persistent lobbying, her efforts paid off when President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Thanksgiving: Evolution of Traditions

Over time, Thanksgiving has evolved in the United States. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the holiday become a symbol of American cultural identity and community. The traditional Thanksgiving menu, including turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, became staples of the holiday meal.

The holiday also became a time for parades and public celebrations. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, an annual event that began in 1924, has become a staple of American Thanksgiving celebrations. This parade, with its massive balloons, floats, and performances, captures the festive spirit of the holiday and is watched by millions across the country.

Thanksgiving in Canada

In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. The tradition dates back to an 1578 voyage of explorer Martin Frobisher in search of the Northwest Passage, marking it as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in North America. Canadian Thanksgiving, more closely linked to the traditions of Europe than those of the United States, is generally considered a time to give thanks for the harvest and blessings of the past year.

Modern Observances and Controversies

In modern times, Thanksgiving is a time for family gatherings and feasting, but it's also a day of reflection and gratitude. However, the holiday is not without controversy, particularly regarding its historical portrayal and impact on Native Americans. Many Native Americans view Thanksgiving as a reminder of the genocide and suffering of their ancestors, leading to a day of mourning for some rather than celebration.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to acknowledge the more complex aspects of Thanksgiving's history. This includes recognizing the contributions and suffering of Native Americans and rethinking how the story of Thanksgiving is taught in schools and discussed in the media.

Thanksgiving's history is a complex tapestry that reflects the broader history of North America. It's a story of survival, celebration, and, unfortunately, also of conflict and suffering. As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, it's important to remember the full scope of this history and to approach the holiday with a sense of gratitude as well as an awareness of its deeper significance. 

This understanding enriches the holiday, making it not just a celebration of gratitude, but also a reflection on history, culture, and the ongoing journey towards greater understanding and reconciliation.

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