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Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving?
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Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Picture of Sean Scarisbrick
Updated: 9 January 2017
Every year, Americans cook an enormous feast to share with family and friends. But why exactly do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Does contemporary Thanksgiving resemble historical Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the history of this iconic holiday, and the reason food plays such an important role.

In 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England with 102 passengers and headed to the New World. It took them over three months to finally arrive in what is today known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. It wasn’t easy for the Pilgrims, and many were killed during the first winter. Most of the settlers remained on the boat for the harsh New England winter, and they emerged in the spring severely crippled.

Thanks to assistance from the local Native American population, the Pilgrims were able to learn how to make their land more productive. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, which was a tributary of the Wampanoag Confederacy. In the early 1600s, he had been enslaved and brought to England, where he started to learn English. He returned to his homeland, was enslaved again, was brought to Spain, reached England, and then returned to his homeland one final time.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims essential agricultural information, like how to plant and cultivate corn, which plants were poisonous, and how to get sap from maple trees. It was under his assistance that the Pilgrims forged an alliance with the Wampanoag.

And this is where the mythic vision of Thanksgiving begins. With a successful corn harvest, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag had a three-day feast to celebrate and give thanks. It’s hard to judge exactly what the celebrants ate, but they likely indulged in venison, corn, and wildfowl – and no turkey.

Unfortunately, not everything was perfect. First, many historians argue that feasts of thanksgiving had already occurred around the world. Some say that similar feasts were held in 1565 and 1619, by Pedro Menéndez de Avilé in Florida and by British settlers in Virginia respectively. Others have said feasts of thanksgiving came from holidays in England following the Protestant Reformation. And still others argue that thanksgiving feasts have ancient origins, spreading back to agricultural celebrations in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt.

Another fault in the mythic vision of American Thanksgiving is that it portrays the relationship between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims as perfect. In reality, the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, began to distrust Squanto’s relationship with the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag captured Squanto, but the Pilgrims freed him – which was a damaging blow to the relationship between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims. Later, Massasoit assigned a man to oversee Squanto’s actions with the Pilgrims and restructure their relationship. Mysteriously, Squanto became ill in 1622 and died within a few days. Some historians argue that Squanto was actually poisoned by the Wampanoag.

Much changed after the first Thanksgiving. Feasts offering thanks were held sporadically. The Pilgrims celebrated again in 1623, George Washington issued a feast day in 1789, and John Adams and James Madison both held days to offer thanks. Days of feast and thanks occurred across the country, but there was no national codification.

The national holiday of Thanksgiving actually owes itself to the woman who wrote ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Sarah Josepha Hale wrote to officials and editorials for 36 years with the hopes of codifying the holiday. Her letters to Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan went unanswered. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln finally accepted her idea for a national holiday; he did so primarily to unify Americans during the time of the Civil War.

It was by this that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the U.S. Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November.

After this, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November every year.This was changed briefly by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to increase holiday sales during the Great Depression. Hoping that sales would increase if Thanksgiving was moved earlier in the month, Roosevelt shifted Thanksgiving (or what then became termed ‘Franksgiving’) a week earlier in 1939. This policy was met with opposition, and all of the states did not comply. Ultimately, this was ended in 1941 when Roosevelt proclaimed that the fourth Thursday of every November would be celebrated nationally as Thanksgiving.

So the question remains: why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving has become a holiday completely centered on food, like turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The food element of the holiday is certainly different from the original Thanksgiving, but it is certainly something to be thankful for.

One essential part of Thanksgiving, especially since the Civil War, is that Thanksgiving is a national holiday that brings together everyone in the U.S., regardless of what state people live in. Businesses shut down, and people are given the opportunity to celebrate with those closest to them.

The story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans is sometimes misconstrued. The first thanksgiving was very different from our current Thanksgiving. One thing remains: we gather with those around us, have a feast, and give our thanks. While people in New York City may not be directly thankful for a bountiful harvest, it is important to remember everything we’re thankful for.