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A History Lesson About the Establishment of the Thanksgiving Holiday in the U.S.

Garrett Cote

The beloved holiday of Thanksgiving — a day of tradition and four ‘F’s’: family, friends, food and fun — returns again on the final Thursday of November, as it always does. But this year, while peering down at a plate full of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes covered in a thick coat of gravy, try to urge a thought back to the events that unraveled to allow such a wonderful annual practice.

Long ago, in November of 1621, a group of 53 pilgrims gathered for a feast. Four men were dispatched to hunt and kill as much fowl and deer as feasible to satisfy this group for an entire week. The only known recollection of this event, now considered the first-ever Thanksgiving, was registered and inscribed in writings by two primary sources: Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation.

More than 150 years later, United States President George Washington issued a document, known as the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. It’s unclear if the House of Congress knew of the original gathering in 1621 (it was not mentioned in the proclamation) when it urged Washington to distribute this letter to the American people — recognizing the protective care of God as a spiritual power.

Washington wrote, “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…”

“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…”

Washington’s vision of a day dedicated to Thanksgiving was sparked because of the Revolutionary War, and he claimed the importance of this day came from God’s care of Americans prior to this Revolution, helping them strive for their goal of reaching independence. The day, in essence, was a way to come together with family and friends to appreciate the simplicities of life during troubled times.

Years after Washington’s proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln revisited the first POTUS’s Thanksgiving order in 1863 — in the middle of the Civil War. Lincoln sought a way to heal a divided country, thus generating a second pact of Thanksgiving.

This would set aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” according to one of Lincoln’s secretaries.

“Each state celebrated Thanksgiving on a different day prior to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation,” said Springfield College history professor Thomas Carty. “Acting during the Civil War, Lincoln hoped that a uniform national holiday would help unite the country in troubled times. He made a proclamation saying that we’re going to commemorate this day. He was looking for a way to unify the country after the internal killing, tensions and bitterness of the Civil War.”

Lincoln’s proclamation had a wave of energy behind it, and with that came great success. The country desperately desired some form of light in a dark time, and the American people bought in. For good.

Because 1863 was north of a century and a half ago, Thanksgiving has evolved and expanded with time. What started as an American-only holiday has ventured off into an abundance of different cultures, consequently, giving rise to many different approaches to celebration.

“Thanksgiving is a unique American holiday, and we associate it with unique American sports like football games,” said Carty. “But like a lot of U.S. holidays, it has grown so much. In some ways due to marketing and globalization, and in some ways due to consumer culture. Now many different cultures celebrate it in a variety of ways.”

On Thanksgiving, it’s important to understand and address the Native American peoples who were dismissed from this very land in the most gruesome of ways.

“Thanksgiving should remind us to recognize the sacrifices of many Native American peoples who suffered disease, exploitation, and removal during these centuries following English arrival,” said Carty.

In 2021, after a long two-year hiatus from normal Thanksgiving glee (considering the majority of states heavily advised against large gatherings), this year has an eerily similar feeling to what Lincoln mentioned in his proclamation. After an unimaginably long bout with the COVID-19 pandemic (while it is still far from over) and the burdensome task of switching back to in-person courses this semester, this many families will finally resume treasured rituals, and Thanksgiving will once again provide a much needed sense of togetherness as it has in centuries past.

Photo Courtesy St. Joseph Post

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