The Facts about Thanksgiving
By Cara J. Stevens
Get ready to learn the truth behind the Thanksgiving celebration. We'll talk turkey about what was really on the first Thanksgiving table, how Thanksgiving became a national holiday, and we'll spill the beans how the official Presidential pardoning of the turkey came to be a tradition.
What is Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States. In Canada it is celebrated on the second Monday in October. In 2008, Thanksgiving is celebrated on November 26th in the US, and October 12th in Canada.
The First Thanksgiving
When we think of Thanksgiving today, images of football, pumpkin pie, parades, and turkey dinner complete with cranberry sauce come to mind, as well as plans for a Black Friday shopping spree the following day.
Of course none of these items were present back in 1621, when the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims sat down together to give thanks for nature’s bounty. Although the celebrants at this particular meal didn’t even call it “Thanksgiving”, this particular harvest feast is the one after which we model our modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations.
People of both cultures had been giving thanks for the fall harvest and other gifts of nature for many centuries. It is interesting to note that the religious element, giving thanks to God, was not present at this particular celebration in 1621, even though the Pilgrims were devoutly religious. In fact, some early Pilgrim "thanksgiving days" were actually fasts rather than feasts. Imagine that!
However, the Native Americans had their own religious customs and beliefs. As a result, during this "first" Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Native Americans did not focus on what was different between them, but instead concentrated on what they all shared. The two groups of people worked side by side to hunt and prepare food as equals and friends. Their friendship and cooperation was yet another thing for which to be thankful. Other feasts such as this one took place throughout the New World, where settlers and Native Americans worked together and celebrated together as one.
When we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner, we honor a piece of early American history. The story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans serve as a good reminder for all of us to be thankful for what we have--no matter how much or how little.
How Thanksgiving Became a Holiday
After 1621, future Thanksgiving celebrations occurred at various times throughout the year. George Washington declared a feast of Thanksgiving in 1789, and presidents issued similar yearly proclamations after that. During the Civil War, poet Sarah Hale started a campaign to celebrate the holiday on the same day throughout the country.
President Abraham Lincoln saw it as a way to unite the country, and he in 1863 he proclaimed a national Thanksgiving celebration on the last Thursday in November. It was changed from the last Thursday to the third Thursday by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 as a way to lengthen the Christmas shopping holiday. In 1941, Roosevelt finally changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November, proclaiming it a Federal holiday in 1941.