The Real Story of Thanksgiving


What more can you say? There is an American magic about Thanksgiving, perhaps the most anticipated holiday of the year that fills in the gap between autumn’s waning grace and winter’s hard slap. Best of all, it is 4 whole days long, or maybe 5 days or 9 days depending on how you count it. After all, who even thinks seriously about work on Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, never mind Wednesday which is like a holiday of its own when we prepare for the big day, excitement in our hearts.

The first Thanksgiving is generally accepted to have been celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 after the harvest following their first winter in the new world. But in fact the very first “thanksgiving” has been traced to almost two years previous on December 4, 1619, when settlers had arrived at Berkeley Hundred, Virginia, knelt in prayer and offered “thanksgiving” to God for their safe arrival by ship from England, an event which they repeated every year thereafter.

But the most famous Thanksgiving indeed came at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the seacoast. Wrote Edward Winslow in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

The menu included cod, eels, clams, lobster, wild turkey, goose, duck, crane and venison, all wild game available to hunters and fishermen. Also there was pumpkin, peas, beans, plums, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, acorns and seasonings including olive oil, leeks and dried currants. What they did not consume was ham, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, milk or eggs which all were not available or were in short supply.

The Pilgrims used many spices including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and dried fruit. The meat was roasted on an open fire. They ate with their hands and wiped them on cloth napkins. They did not have sweet desserts like pies because their supply of sugar brought from England more than a year before certainly had dwindled and they did not have ovens for baking anyway.

The Pilgrims shared their meal with Wampanoag Indians. The idea of a harvest dinner giving thanks was a tradition among North American Indians for centuries, and has been a worldwide tradition for many cultures.

Massachusetts governor William Bradford wrote in 1621:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

Thanksgiving was never an official day even into the mid-1600s when days of thanks for the harvest became regular and irregular events in colonial towns. The Massachusetts Bay Colony celebrated an official thanksgiving from 1630 through 1680.

During the 1700s, individual colonies offered thanksgiving on their own schedules to celebrate the harvest, military victories or a public event like the adoption of a state constitution.

The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving on December 18 was given by the Continental Congress in 1777:

FOR AS MUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success: It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.

On October 3, 1789, George Washington made this proclamation about the first Thanksgiving Day as the 26th of November as designated by the newly formed constitutional republican government of the United States:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

By the mid-1800s, Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor, was campaigning for Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday which it was so declared by Abraham Lincoln to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”

Why is Thanksgiving on a Thursday?

It is for two reasons: To separate it from the Sunday Sabbath. And to set it on the weekday when Early American ministers often gave religious lectures.

In 1939 that last Thursday designated by Lincoln was the fifth Thursday in November, and would have shortened the Christmas shopping season substantially during the great depression. So president Roosevelt, under pressure from the National Retail Dry Goods Association and other business interests, declared Thanksgiving the third Thursday in order to extend the shopping season. The federal Congress then passed a joint resolution in 1941 making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November in order to clear any conflicts with state calendars.

The famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City – originally known as Macy’s Christmas Parade – was not the first such parade in the nation. In 1920, Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia held the first. The first Macy’s parade in 1924 featured animals from the Central Park Zoo, but the roaring lions frightened many children and thus did not appear in later parades. 3 million people attend the New York parade annually, while 44 million watch it on television.

The top turkey-producing state is Minnesota with 50 million birds, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia. 270 million turkeys are raised in the US each year. But the National turkey Federation says that only 20% of all turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving.

Three towns in America are named after the bird – Turkey, Texas, Turkey Creek, Louisiana and Turkey, North Carolina.

The wild turkey even was proposed as the national bird over the soaring, stately bald eagle by none other than Benjamin Franklin who called the turkey “a bird of courage”.

It is probably a good thing it was not chosen. Most turkeys cannot even fly. And somehow the turkey’s hideous profile does not inspire nation-building confidence.

One final fact: Turkey eggs have two yolks.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

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