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Thanksgiving Day
Our (Almost Traditional) Thanksgiving Dinner.jpg
A North American Thanksgiving dinner
Observed by Countries

Sub-national entities

Type National, cultural
Date
  • 2nd Monday in October (Canada)
  • 1st Thursday in November (Liberia)
  • Last Wednesday in November (Norfolk Island)
  • 4th Thursday in November (U.S. and Brazil)
2021 date October 11, 2021 (Canada);

November 4, 2021 (Liberia);
November 24, 2021 (Norfolk Island);

November 25, 2021 (U.S. and Brazil)
2022 date October 10, 2022 (Canada);

November 3, 2022 (Liberia);
November 30, 2022 (Norfolk Island);

November 24, 2022 (U.S. and Brazil)

Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated on various dates in the United States, Canada, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Liberia. It began as a day of giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Similarly named festival holidays occur in Germany and Japan. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and around the same part of the year in other places. Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday as well.

History

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times.[1] The Thanksgiving holiday's history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.[1][2]

In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705.[3] An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5.[3]

In Canada

According to some historians, the first celebration of Thanksgiving in North America occurred during the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage.[4] Other researchers, however, state that "there is no compelling narrative of the origins of the Canadian Thanksgiving day."[5]

The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are also sometimes traced to the French settlers who came to New France in the 17th century, who celebrated their successful harvests. The French settlers in the area typically had feasts at the end of the harvest season. They continued throughout the winter season, even sharing food with the indigenous peoples of the area.[6]

As settlers arrived in Nova Scotia from New England after 1700, late autumn Thanksgiving celebrations became commonplace. New immigrants into the country—such as the Irish, Scottish, and Germans—also added their own traditions to the harvest celebrations. Most of the U.S. aspects of Thanksgiving (such as the turkey) were incorporated when United Empire Loyalists began to flee from the United States during the American Revolution and settled in Canada.[6]

In the United States

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1925, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group's charter from the London Company, which required "that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned ... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. The Pilgrims celebrated this with Native Americans, who had helped them get through the previous winter by giving them food in that time of scarcity.[7][8][9]

Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the "First Thanksgiving", including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631.[10][11] According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden.[12] Now called Oktober Feest, Leiden's autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims' plans to emigrate to America.[13]

Later in Massachusetts, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned the colony's thanksgiving celebration and feast in 1623.[14][15][16] In the late 1630s, the Pequot were blamed for the killing of a white man, leading to the colonizers burning down Pequot villages and killing those who did not perish in the fires.[17] Hundreds of Pequots were killed, leading Governor Bradford to proclaim that Thanksgiving from then on would be celebrating "the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won."[17][18] The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.[19]

Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, and conversely by patriot leaders, such as John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress,[20] each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes.[21] As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God".[22]

Debate about the nation's first celebrations

Shrine of the first U.S. Thanksgiving in 1619 at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia

The question of where the first Thanksgiving was held in the United States has been a subject of dispute, primarily between New England and Virginia. The question is complicated by the concept of Thanksgiving as either a holiday celebration or a religious service. James Baker maintains, "The American holiday's true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God's providence."[10] Baker calls the debate a "tempest in a beanpot" and "marvelous nonsense" based on regional claims.[10] However, the day for Thanksgiving services specifically codified in the founding charter of Berkeley Hundred in 1619 was instrumental in President John F. Kennedy's attempt to strike a compromise between the regional claims, by issuing Proclamation 3560 on November 5, 1963, stating, "Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God."[23]

Other claims include an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598.[24] Historians Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish community on September 8, 1565, in current Saint Augustine, Florida.[25][26]

Fixing a date

Canada

The earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada has been attributed to the earlier onset of winter in the North, thus ending the harvest season earlier.[27] Thanksgiving in Canada did not have a fixed date until the late 19th century. Prior to Canadian Confederation, many of the individual colonial governors of the Canadian provinces had declared their own days of Thanksgiving. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving occurred on April 15, 1872, when the nation was celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from a serious illness.[27]

By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day was normally celebrated on November 6. In the late 19th century, the Militia staged "sham battles" for public entertainment on Thanksgiving Day. The Militia agitated for an earlier date for the holiday, so they could use the warmer weather to draw bigger crowds.[28] However, when World War I ended, the Armistice Day holiday was usually held during the same week. To prevent the two holidays from clashing with one another, in 1957 the Canadian Parliament proclaimed Thanksgiving to be observed on its present date on the second Monday of October.[6]

United States

Thanksgiving in the United States has been observed on differing dates. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date of observance varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with, and eventually superseding the holiday of Evacuation Day (commemorating the day the British exited the United States after the Revolutionary War).[29] Modern Thanksgiving was proclaimed for all states in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for approximately 40 years advocating an official holiday, Lincoln set national Thanksgiving by proclamation for the final Thursday in November, explicitly in celebration of the bounties that had continued to fall on the Union and for the military successes in the war, and also explicitly in "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."[30] Because of the ongoing Civil War, a nationwide Thanksgiving celebration was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.

On October 31, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation changing the holiday to the next to last Thursday in November, for business reasons.[31] On December 26, 1941, he signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday in November.[32]

Since 1971, when the American Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, the American observance of Columbus Day has coincided with the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.[33][34]

Observance

Australia

In the Australian external territory of Norfolk Island, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the last Wednesday of November, similar to the pre–World War II American observance on the last Thursday of the month. This means the Norfolk Island observance is the day before or six days after the United States' observance. The holiday was brought to the island by visiting American whaling ships.[35]

Brazil

In Brazil, National Thanksgiving Day was instituted by President Gaspar Dutra, through Law 781 of August 17, 1949, at the suggestion of Ambassador Joaquim Nabuco, who was enthusiastic about the commemorations he saw in 1909 in St. Patrick's Cathedral as an ambassador in Washington. In 1966, Law 5110 established that the Thanksgiving celebration would take place on the fourth Thursday of November.[36] This date is celebrated by many families of American origin, by some Protestant Christian denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (which is of American origin), the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene, and Methodist denominational universities. The day is also celebrated by evangelical churches such as the Foursquare Gospel Church in Brazil.

Canada

Pumpkin pie is commonly served on and around Thanksgiving in North America.

Thanksgiving (French: l'Action de grâce), occurring on the second Monday in October, is an annual Canadian holiday to give thanks at the close of the harvest season. Although the original act of Parliament references God and the holiday is celebrated in churches, the holiday is mostly celebrated in a secular manner. Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday in all provinces in Canada, except for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. While businesses may remain open in these provinces, the holiday is nonetheless recognized and celebrated regardless of its status.[37][38][39][40][41]

Grenada

In the West Indian island of Grenada, in the Caribbean, there is a national holiday known as Thanksgiving Day which is celebrated on October 25. Even though it bears the same name, and is celebrated at roughly the same time as the American and Canadian versions of Thanksgiving, this holiday is unrelated to either of those celebrations. Instead, the holiday marks the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of the island in 1983, in response to the deposition and execution of the socialist Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop[42] by a military government from within his own party.

Liberia

In the West African country of Liberia, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the first Thursday of November.[43] The Thanksgiving tradition there is rooted in the nation's founding as a colony of the American Colonization Society in 1821 by free people of color from the United States. Although recognized throughout the country, Thanksgiving is practiced chiefly by Americo-Liberians, descendants of Liberia's original African-American settlers.[citation needed]

Netherlands

Pieterskerk

Many of the Pilgrims who migrated to the Plymouth Plantation resided in the city of Leiden from 1609–1620 and had recorded their births, marriages, and deaths at the Pieterskerk (St. Peter's church). In commemoration, a non-denominational Thanksgiving Day service is held each year on the morning of the American Thanksgiving Day in the Pieterskerk, a Gothic church in Leiden, noting the hospitality the Pilgrims received in Leiden on their way to the New World.[44]

Thanksgiving is observed by orthodox Protestant churches in the Netherlands on the first Wednesday in November (Dankdag [nl]). It is not a public holiday. Those who observe the day either go to church in the evening or take the day off and go to church in the morning (and occasionally afternoon) too.

Philippines

The Philippines, while it was an American colony in the first half of the 20th century, celebrated Thanksgiving as a special public holiday on the same day as the Americans. During the Japanese occupation during World War II, both the Americans and Filipinos celebrated Thanksgiving in secret. After Japanese withdrawal in 1945, the tradition continued until 1969. It was revived by President Ferdinand Marcos, but the date was changed to be on every September 21, when martial law was imposed in the country. After Marcos' ouster in 1986, the tradition was no longer continued, due to the controversial events that occurred during his long administration.[45]

As of 2020, Thanksgiving has been revived as a commercial and cultural holiday, albeit stripped of its official status. SM Supermalls led the way in the slow revival of Thanksgiving Day on the same day as in the U.S., as in the old days. Many malls and hotels offer special sales on this day, which is part of the long celebration of Christmas in the Philippines, which begins in September (unlike on Black Friday in the United States).

Rwanda

Called Umuganura Day, this is a Thanksgiving festival to mark the start of the harvest in Rwanda. It is celebrated on the first Friday of August.[46]

Saint Lucia

The nation of Saint Lucia celebrates Thanksgiving on the first Monday in October.[47]

United States

Family saying grace before Thanksgiving dinner in Neffsville, Pennsylvania, 1942

Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November since 1941 due to federal legislation, has been an annual tradition in the United States by presidential proclamation since 1863 and by state legislation since the Founding Fathers of the United States. Traditionally, Thanksgiving has been a celebration of the blessings of the year, including the harvest.[48] On Thanksgiving Day, it is common for Americans to share a family meal, attend church services, and view special sporting events.[49] In addition, Thanksgiving is celebrated in public places with parades such as Macy's Thanksgiving Parade[50] in New York City, ABC Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade[51] in Philadelphia, America's Hometown Thanksgiving Parade in Plymouth, Massachusetts, McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, and Bayou Classic Thanksgiving Parade[52] in New Orleans. What Americans call the "Holiday Season" generally begins with Thanksgiving.[53] The first day after Thanksgiving Day—Black Friday—marks the start of the Christmas shopping season.[54]

Similarly named holidays

Germany

A food decoration for Erntedankfest, a Christian Thanksgiving harvest festival celebrated in Germany

The Harvest Thanksgiving Festival, Erntedankfest, is a popular German Christian festival on the first Sunday of October. The festival has a significant religious component, and many churches are decorated with autumn crops. In some places, there are religious processions or parades. Many Bavarian beer festivals, like the Munich Oktoberfest, take place within the vicinity of Erntedankfest.[original research?]

Japan

Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a national holiday in Japan. It takes place annually on November 23. The law establishing the holiday, which was adopted during the American occupation after World War II, cites it as an occasion for commemorating labor and production and giving each other thanks. It has roots in the ancient Shinto harvest ceremony (Niiname-sai (新嘗祭)).

United Kingdom

Harvest Festival flowers at a church in Shrewsbury, England

The Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving does not have an official date in the United Kingdom; however, it is traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the harvest moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox. Harvest Thanksgiving in Britain also has pre-Christian roots when the Saxons would offer the first sheaf of barley, oats, or wheat to fertility gods. When the harvest was finally collected, communities would come together for a harvest supper.[55] When Christianity arrived in Britain many traditions remained, and today the Harvest Festival is marked by churches and schools in late September/early October (same as Canada) with singing, praying and decorating with baskets of food and fruit to celebrate a successful harvest and to give thanks.[56] Collections of food are usually held which are then given to local charities which help the homeless and those in need.

See also

Citations

  1. ^ Jump up to:a b Hodgson, pp. 156–59
  2. ^ Baker, Chapter 1, especially pp. 12–15.
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b Baker, James W. (2009). Thanksgiving: the biography of an American holiday. UPNE. pp. 1–14. ISBN 9781584658016.
  4. ^ Mills, David; Neilson Bonikowsky, Laura; McIntosh, Andrew. "Thanksgiving in Canada". Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Retrieved October 6, 2017.
  5. ^ Kaufman, Jason Andrew (2009). The Origins of Canadian & American Political Differences. Harvard University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0674031364.
  6. ^ Jump up to:a b c Solski, Ruth "Canada's Traditions and Celebrations" McGill-Queen's Press,ISBN 1550356941 p. 12
  7. ^ "The First Thanksgiving". The Virginia Historical Society. Retrieved November 29, 2016.
  8. ^ Dowdy, Clifford (1957). The Great Plantation. Rinehart and Co. pp. 29–37.
  9. ^ Globe, Sheryl Julian, The Boston. "HISTORY IS SERVED". chicagotribune.com.
  10. ^ Jump up to:a b c Baker, Chapter 1.
  11. ^ Alvin J. Schmidt (2004). How Christianity Changed the World. Zondervan. ISBN 9780310264491. Retrieved January 30, 2012. Their leader, Governor William Bradford, issued a formal proclamation commanding the people to give thanks to God for having received divine protection during a terrible winter and for having received their first harvest. It was also new that the Pilgrims celebrated their thanksgiving by eating wild turkey (an indigenous bird) and venison.
  12. ^ Jeremy Bangs. "Influences". The Pilgrims' Leiden. Archived from the original on January 13, 2012. Retrieved September 11,2010.
  13. ^ Bunker, Nick (2010). Making Haste From Babylon: the Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 220–21. ISBN 9780307386267.
  14. ^ Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, pp. 120–21.
  15. ^ Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, pp. 135–42.
  16. ^ The fast and thanksgiving days of New England by William DeLoss Love, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Cambridge, 1895
  17. ^ Jump up to:a b "6 Thanksgiving Myths and the Wampanoag Side of the Story". IndianCountryToday.com. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
  18. ^ ESTES, NICK. (2020). OUR HISTORY IS THE FUTURE : standing rock versus the dakota access pipeline, and the long ... tradition of indigenous resistance. VERSO. ISBN 978-1-78873-729-6. OCLC 1132241121.
  19. ^ Kaufman, Jason Andrew (2009). The origins of Canadian and American political differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0674031364.
  20. ^ Klos, Stanley. "Thanksgiving Day Proclamations". Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations. Historic.us. Retrieved October 16,2013.
  21. ^ Hodgson, pp. 159–66
  22. ^ Hodgson, p. 167
  23. ^ "John F. Kennedy 35th President, Thanksgiving Proclamation, Nov. 5, 1963". The American Presidency Project. Retrieved November 24, 2016.
  24. ^ C. Michael Hogan (2011). Thanksgiving. Eds. Cutler Cleveland & Peter Saundry. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC
  25. ^ Wilson, Craig (November 21, 2007). "Florida teacher chips away at Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving myth". Usatoday.com. Retrieved September 5, 2011.
  26. ^ Davis, Kenneth C. (November 25, 2008). "A French Connection". Nytimes.com. Retrieved September 5, 2011.
  27. ^ Jump up to:a b Kaufman, Jason Andrew (2009). "The origins of Canadian and American political differences" Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674031369 p. 29
  28. ^ Wood, James "Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921." UBC Press, 2010 ISBN 978-0-7748-1765-3p.30
  29. ^ "Evacuation Day: New York's Former November Holiday". November 24, 2014. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  30. ^ "Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln". www.abrahamlincolnonline.org. Retrieved October 30, 2018.
  31. ^ "31 Oct 1939, Page 1 - Green Bay Press-Gazette at Newspapers.com". Newspapers.com.
  32. ^ "Congress Establishes Thanksgiving". National Archives. August 15, 2016.
  33. ^ "LBJ Signs Bill to Set Up Five 3-Day Holidays". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Associated Press. June 29, 1968. Retrieved December 6, 2011.The bill became the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
  34. ^ "Text of the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act". US Government Archives (www.archives.gov). Retrieved December 6,2011.
  35. ^ "Norfolk Island Information and Services". Archived from the original on September 20, 2010.
  36. ^ "Dia Nacional de Ações de Graças". Ministério da Justiça e Segurança Pública (in Portuguese). Retrieved November 29, 2019.
  37. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 18, 2010. Retrieved December 8, 2010.
  38. ^ "Thanksgiving – is it a Statutory Holiday?". Government of Nova Scotia. Retrieved October 13, 2008.
  39. ^ "Statutes, Chapter E-6.2" (PDF). Government of Prince Edward Island. Retrieved October 13, 2008.
  40. ^ "RSNL1990 Chapter L-2 – Labour Standards Act". Assembly of Newfoundland. Retrieved October 13, 2008.
  41. ^ "Statutory Holidays" (PDF). Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, Canada. Archived from the original (PDF)on February 29, 2008.
  42. ^ "Public Holidays & Events 2017". GOV.gd. October 12, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  43. ^ "Vice President Boakai Joins Catholic Community in Bomi to Celebrate Thanksgiving Day". The Executive Mansion. Republic of Liberia. November 5, 2010. Retrieved October 5, 2014.
  44. ^ "Dutch town". The World (radio program). Retrieved November 28, 2008. The Pilgrims arrived in Leiden in 1609, after fleeing religious persecution in England. Leiden welcomed them because it needed immigrants to help rebuild its textile industry, which had been devastated by a long revolt against Spain. Here, the Pilgrims were allowed to worship as they wanted, and they even published their arguments calling for the separation of church and state. Jeremy Bangs of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum says the Pilgrims quickly adopted Dutch customs like civil marriage and Thanksgiving.
  45. ^ "Thanksgiving in the Philippines". Philippine Presidential Museum and Library. Retrieved November 27, 2015.
  46. ^ "Umuganura Day in Rwanda in 2020". Office Holidays. Retrieved April 26, 2020.
  47. ^ "Saint Lucia's List of Holidays for the Year 2015" (PDF). Stluciachamber.org. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 14, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  48. ^ "Thanksgiving Day". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  49. ^ Counihan, Carole (October 18, 2013). Food in the USA: A Reader. Routledge. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-135-32359-2. Football games are scheduled and televised throughout the nation; an elaborately constructed, now traditional Macy's parade may be viewed. There are special services, which some attend, and turkeys and other foods are given by churches and other charitable organizations to the poor.
  50. ^ "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade". Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  51. ^ "6ABC THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE". Retrieved April 5,2019.
  52. ^ "Bayou Classic". Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  53. ^ Hargis, Toni (November 4, 2013). "A Brit's Guide to the Holiday Season". BBC America.
  54. ^ "When is Thanksgiving Day and why is it celebrated". November 22, 2018. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  55. ^ "Harvest Festival UK". Crewsnest.vispa.com. Retrieved April 17,2017.
  56. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 23, 2015. Retrieved June 18, 2015.

Sources

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and Thanksgiving 2021 occurs on Thursday, November 25. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.

READ MORE: Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

READ MORE: What's the Difference Between Puritans and Pilgrims?

Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Native American who greeted them in English. 

Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the first Thanksgiving’s exact menu, much of what we know about what happened at the first Thanksgiving comes from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:

“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 fruits 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 amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst 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 on 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."

Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations

READ MORE: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. 

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During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. 

In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, earning her the nickname the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

READ MORE: How the 'Mother of Thanksgiving' Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday  

Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Traditions and Rituals

In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been on offer when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. 

Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird—whether roasted, baked or deep-fried—on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.

Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.

Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.

Thanksgiving Controversies

For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims’ celebration. In 1565, for instance, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival. On December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River, they read a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Some Native Americans and many others take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially to schoolchildren. In their view, the traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar events are held in other parts of the country.

Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins

Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic. Both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.

As an annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty, moreover, Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents and millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Finally, historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.

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Thanksgiving Day, annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people. The American holiday is particularly rich in legend and symbolism, and the traditional fare of the Thanksgiving meal typically includes turkey, bread stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. With respect to vehicular travel, the holiday is often the busiest of the year, as family members gather with one another.

Plymouth’s Thanksgiving began with a few colonists going out “fowling,” possibly for turkeys but more probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks, since they “in one day killed as much as…served the company almost a week.” Next, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance at the settlement’s gate, doubtlessly unnerving the 50 or so colonists. Nevertheless, over the next few days the two groups socialized without incident. The Wampanoag contributed venison to the feast, which included the fowl and probably fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables, and beer. Since Plymouth had few buildings and manufactured goods, most people ate outside while sitting on the ground or on barrels with plates on their laps. The men fired guns, ran races, and drank liquor, struggling to speak in broken English and Wampanoag. This was a rather disorderly affair, but it sealed a treaty between the two groups that lasted until King Philip’s War (1675–76), in which hundreds of colonists and thousands of Native Americans lost their lives.

The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “Thanksgivings,” days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. The U.S. Continental Congress proclaimed a national Thanksgiving upon the enactment of the Constitution, for example. Yet, after 1798, the new U.S. Congress left Thanksgiving declarations to the states; some objected to the national government’s involvement in a religious observance, Southerners were slow to adopt a New England custom, and others took offense over the day’s being used to hold partisan speeches and parades. A national Thanksgiving Day seemed more like a lightning rod for controversy than a unifying force.

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Thanksgiving Day did not become an official holiday until Northerners dominated the federal government. While sectional tensions prevailed in the mid-19th century, the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned for a national Thanksgiving Day to promote unity. She finally won the support of President Abraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26.

The holiday was annually proclaimed by every president thereafter, and the date chosen, with few exceptions, was the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, attempted to extend the Christmas shopping season, which generally begins with the Thanksgiving holiday, and to boost the economy by moving the date back a week, to the third week in November. But not all states complied, and, after a joint resolution of Congress in 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation in 1942 designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.

As the country became more urban and family members began to live farther apart, Thanksgiving became a time to gather together. The holiday moved away from its religious roots to allow immigrants of every background to participate in a common tradition. Thanksgiving Day football games, beginning with Yale versus Princeton in 1876, enabled fans to add some rowdiness to the holiday. In the late 1800s parades of costumed revelers became common. In 1920 Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia staged a parade of about 50 people with Santa Claus at the rear of the procession. Since 1924 the annual Macy’s parade in New York City has continued the tradition, with huge balloons since 1927. The holiday associated with Pilgrims and Native Americans has come to symbolize intercultural peace, America’s opportunity for newcomers, and the sanctity of home and family.

Days of thanksgiving in Canada also originated in the colonial period, arising from the same European traditions, in gratitude for safe journeys, peace, and bountiful harvests. The earliest celebration was held in 1578, when an expedition led by Martin Frobisher held a ceremony in present-day Nunavut to give thanks for the safety of its fleet. In 1879 Parliament established a national Thanksgiving Day on November 6; the date has varied over the years. Since 1957 Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in Canada on the second Monday in October.

The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue

In truth, massacres, disease and American Indian tribal politics are what shaped the Pilgrim-Indian alliance at the root of the holiday

Ousamequin and Carver
Chief Ousamequin shares a peace pipe with Plymouth Governor John Carver. (California State Library )
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

In Thanksgiving pageants held at schools across the United States, children don headdresses colored with craft-store feathers and share tables with classmates wearing black construction paper hats. It’s a tradition that pulls on a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth: local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast. But, as David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, much of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Beyond that, Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth.

Silverman’s book focuses on the Wampanoags. When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the new arrivals an entente, primarily as a way to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. For 50 years, the alliance was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. Then, tensions ignited into war. Known as King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), the conflict devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals. Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.

We spoke with Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University, about his research and the argument he makes in his book.

How did you become interested in this story?

 

I've had a great many conversations with Wampanoag people, in which they talk about how burdensome Thanksgiving is for them, particularly for their kids. Wampanoag adults have memories of being a kid during Thanksgiving season, sitting in school, feeling invisible and having to wade through the nonsense that teachers were shoveling their way. They felt like their people's history as they understood it was being misrepresented. They felt that not only their classes, but society in general was making light of historical trauma which weighs around their neck like a millstone. Those stories really resonated with me.

 

What is the Thanksgiving myth?

The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

What are the most poignant inaccuracies in this story?

One is that history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive. People had been in the Americas for least 12,000 years and according to some Native traditions, since the beginning of time. And having history start with the English is a way of dismissing all that. The second is that the arrival of the Mayflower is some kind of first-contact episode. It’s not. Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans–it was bloody and it involved slave raiding by Europeans. At least two and maybe more Wampanoags, when the Pilgrims arrived, spoke English, had already been to Europe and back and knew the very organizers of the Pilgrims’ venture.

Most poignantly, using a shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism really has it backward. No question about it, Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. But it’s not because he was innately friendly. It’s because his people have been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin sees the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels. That’s not the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants. The Thanksgiving myth doesn’t address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War, and also doesn’t address Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they’re still here, despite the odds.

How did the Great Dinner become the focal point of the modern Thanksgiving holiday?

For quite a long time, English people had been celebrating Thanksgivings that didn’t involve feasting—they involved fasting and prayer and supplication to God. In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away as New England became less relevant within the colonies and the early republic, and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America.

What really made it the story is that a publication mentioning that dinner published by the Rev. Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” People picked up on this footnote. The idea became pretty widely accepted, and Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War to foster unity.

It gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers. How better to do that than to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land?

This mythmaking was also impacted by the racial politics of the late 19th century. The Indian Wars were coming to a close and that was an opportune time to have Indians included in a national founding myth. You couldn’t have done that when people were reading newspaper accounts on a regular basis of atrocious violence between white Americans and Native people in the West. What’s more, during Reconstruction, that Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian Wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.

 

Can you explain the discrepancies in English and Wampanoag conceptions of property?

 

It's incorrect as is widely assumed that native people had no sense of property. They didn't have private property, but they had community property, and they certainly understood where their people's land started and where it ended. And so, when Europeans come to the Americas and they buy land from the Wampanoags, the Wampanoags initially assume the English are buying into Wampanoag country, not that they're buying Wampanoag country out from under their feet.

 

Imagine a flotilla of Wampanoag canoes crosses the Atlantic and goes to England, and then the Wampanoags buy land from the English there. Has that land now passed out of the jurisdiction of England and become the Wampanoags’? No, that's ridiculous. But that's precisely what the English were assuming on this side of the Atlantic. Part of what King Philip's War was about is Wampanoag people saying, ‘Enough, you're not going to turn us into a landless, subjugated people.’

Did all Wampanoags want to enter into alliance with the English?

From the very beginning, a sizable number of Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin's decision to reach out to [the English] and tried to undermine the alliance. Ousamequin puts down multiple plots to wipe out the colony and unseat him. Some Wampanoags say, ‘Let's make an alliance with the Narragansetts and get rid of these English. They've been raiding our coast for decades, enslaving our people, carrying them off to unknown fates and they can't be trusted.’ Some Wampanoags believed they caused epidemics and there were prophecies that this would be the end of the People.

 

When the English arrived, they entered a multilateral Indian political world in which the internal politics of the Wampanoag tribe and the intertribal politics of the Wampanoag tribe were paramount. To the degree the Wampanoags dealt with the English, it was to adjust the power dynamics of Indian country.

 

You write that during King Philip’s War, efforts to unify different tribes against the settlers weren’t always successful. Why was that?

 

The politics of Indian country are more important to native people than their differences with colonists. There were no ‘Indians’ when the English arrived. Native people didn't conceive of themselves as Indians—that's an identity that they have had to learn through their shared struggles with colleagues. And it takes a long time—they have been here for 12,000 plus years, and there are a lot of differences between them. Their focus is on their own people, not on the shared interests of Indians and very often, what's in the best interest of their own people is cutting deals with colonial powers with an eye towards combating their native rivals.

 

How does your telling of these events differ from other existing scholarship?

 

The main difference has to do with King Philip's War. The question is whether native people, led by Metacomet, or Philip as the English call him, were plotting a multi-tribal uprising against the English. I think they were. Some of my historian colleagues think it's a figment of paranoid English imagination. But I see a lot of warning signals building during the 1660s and 70s from Englishmen who lived cheek-by-jowl with Wampanoag people and were terrified of what they were seeing on the ground. I see a pattern of political meetings between native leaders who hated each other. And yet, they were getting together over and over and over again—it all adds up to me.

 

There's this tendency to see the English as the devils in all of this. I don't think there's any question they’re in the wrong, but it doesn't let them off the hook to say that native people wouldn't take it anymore. And regardless of that, I think the evidence shows that native people had reached their limit and recognize that if they didn't rise up immediately, they were going to become landless subordinates to English authority.

 

This is about as contrary to the Thanksgiving myth that one can get. That's the story we should be teaching our kids. They should be learning about why native people reached that point, rather than this nonsense that native people willingly handed off their country to the invaders. It does damage to how our native countrymen and women feel as part of this country, it makes white Americans a lot less reflective about where their privilege comes from, and it makes us a lot less critical as a country when it comes to interrogating the rationales that leaders will marshal to act aggressively against foreign others. If we're taught to cut through colonial rhetoric we'll be better positioned to cut through modern colonial and imperial rhetoric.

The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue

In truth, massacres, disease and American Indian tribal politics are what shaped the Pilgrim-Indian alliance at the root of the holiday

Ousamequin and Carver
Chief Ousamequin shares a peace pipe with Plymouth Governor John Carver. (California State Library )
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

In Thanksgiving pageants held at schools across the United States, children don headdresses colored with craft-store feathers and share tables with classmates wearing black construction paper hats. It’s a tradition that pulls on a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth: local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast. But, as David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, much of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Beyond that, Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth.

Silverman’s book focuses on the Wampanoags. When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the new arrivals an entente, primarily as a way to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. For 50 years, the alliance was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. Then, tensions ignited into war. Known as King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), the conflict devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals. Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.

We spoke with Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University, about his research and the argument he makes in his book.

How did you become interested in this story?

 

I've had a great many conversations with Wampanoag people, in which they talk about how burdensome Thanksgiving is for them, particularly for their kids. Wampanoag adults have memories of being a kid during Thanksgiving season, sitting in school, feeling invisible and having to wade through the nonsense that teachers were shoveling their way. They felt like their people's history as they understood it was being misrepresented. They felt that not only their classes, but society in general was making light of historical trauma which weighs around their neck like a millstone. Those stories really resonated with me.

 

What is the Thanksgiving myth?

The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

What are the most poignant inaccuracies in this story?

One is that history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive. People had been in the Americas for least 12,000 years and according to some Native traditions, since the beginning of time. And having history start with the English is a way of dismissing all that. The second is that the arrival of the Mayflower is some kind of first-contact episode. It’s not. Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans–it was bloody and it involved slave raiding by Europeans. At least two and maybe more Wampanoags, when the Pilgrims arrived, spoke English, had already been to Europe and back and knew the very organizers of the Pilgrims’ venture.

Most poignantly, using a shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism really has it backward. No question about it, Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. But it’s not because he was innately friendly. It’s because his people have been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin sees the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels. That’s not the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants. The Thanksgiving myth doesn’t address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War, and also doesn’t address Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they’re still here, despite the odds.

How did the Great Dinner become the focal point of the modern Thanksgiving holiday?

For quite a long time, English people had been celebrating Thanksgivings that didn’t involve feasting—they involved fasting and prayer and supplication to God. In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away as New England became less relevant within the colonies and the early republic, and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America.

What really made it the story is that a publication mentioning that dinner published by the Rev. Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” People picked up on this footnote. The idea became pretty widely accepted, and Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War to foster unity.

It gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers. How better to do that than to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land?

This mythmaking was also impacted by the racial politics of the late 19th century. The Indian Wars were coming to a close and that was an opportune time to have Indians included in a national founding myth. You couldn’t have done that when people were reading newspaper accounts on a regular basis of atrocious violence between white Americans and Native people in the West. What’s more, during Reconstruction, that Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian Wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.

 

Can you explain the discrepancies in English and Wampanoag conceptions of property?

 

It's incorrect as is widely assumed that native people had no sense of property. They didn't have private property, but they had community property, and they certainly understood where their people's land started and where it ended. And so, when Europeans come to the Americas and they buy land from the Wampanoags, the Wampanoags initially assume the English are buying into Wampanoag country, not that they're buying Wampanoag country out from under their feet.

 

Imagine a flotilla of Wampanoag canoes crosses the Atlantic and goes to England, and then the Wampanoags buy land from the English there. Has that land now passed out of the jurisdiction of England and become the Wampanoags’? No, that's ridiculous. But that's precisely what the English were assuming on this side of the Atlantic. Part of what King Philip's War was about is Wampanoag people saying, ‘Enough, you're not going to turn us into a landless, subjugated people.’

Did all Wampanoags want to enter into alliance with the English?

From the very beginning, a sizable number of Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin's decision to reach out to [the English] and tried to undermine the alliance. Ousamequin puts down multiple plots to wipe out the colony and unseat him. Some Wampanoags say, ‘Let's make an alliance with the Narragansetts and get rid of these English. They've been raiding our coast for decades, enslaving our people, carrying them off to unknown fates and they can't be trusted.’ Some Wampanoags believed they caused epidemics and there were prophecies that this would be the end of the People.

 

When the English arrived, they entered a multilateral Indian political world in which the internal politics of the Wampanoag tribe and the intertribal politics of the Wampanoag tribe were paramount. To the degree the Wampanoags dealt with the English, it was to adjust the power dynamics of Indian country.

 

You write that during King Philip’s War, efforts to unify different tribes against the settlers weren’t always successful. Why was that?

 

The politics of Indian country are more important to native people than their differences with colonists. There were no ‘Indians’ when the English arrived. Native people didn't conceive of themselves as Indians—that's an identity that they have had to learn through their shared struggles with colleagues. And it takes a long time—they have been here for 12,000 plus years, and there are a lot of differences between them. Their focus is on their own people, not on the shared interests of Indians and very often, what's in the best interest of their own people is cutting deals with colonial powers with an eye towards combating their native rivals.

 

How does your telling of these events differ from other existing scholarship?

 

The main difference has to do with King Philip's War. The question is whether native people, led by Metacomet, or Philip as the English call him, were plotting a multi-tribal uprising against the English. I think they were. Some of my historian colleagues think it's a figment of paranoid English imagination. But I see a lot of warning signals building during the 1660s and 70s from Englishmen who lived cheek-by-jowl with Wampanoag people and were terrified of what they were seeing on the ground. I see a pattern of political meetings between native leaders who hated each other. And yet, they were getting together over and over and over again—it all adds up to me.

 

There's this tendency to see the English as the devils in all of this. I don't think there's any question they’re in the wrong, but it doesn't let them off the hook to say that native people wouldn't take it anymore. And regardless of that, I think the evidence shows that native people had reached their limit and recognize that if they didn't rise up immediately, they were going to become landless subordinates to English authority.

 

This is about as contrary to the Thanksgiving myth that one can get. That's the story we should be teaching our kids. They should be learning about why native people reached that point, rather than this nonsense that native people willingly handed off their country to the invaders. It does damage to how our native countrymen and women feel as part of this country, it makes white Americans a lot less reflective about where their privilege comes from, and it makes us a lot less critical as a country when it comes to interrogating the rationales that leaders will marshal to act aggressively against foreign others. If we're taught to cut through colonial rhetoric we'll be better positioned to cut through modern colonial and imperial rhetoric.