Where And How Did It All Begin
For most American's this article will probably not provide much news as Thanksgiving is one of the main family holidays of the year. As a European I always liked the idea of the festivities of Thanksgiving when families, who are often dispersed as children become adults, make efforts to get together.
But as someone who has not had the pleasure of experiencing the custom of American Thanksgiving I decided to take a closer look at the history and tradition of this celebration held each year on a Thursday at the end of November.
In order to put Thanksgiving in perspective I first have to start with the origin of European settlement of America, or the New World, as it was know in the 16 hundreds. In 1620, a small ship named the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England with a total of 102 passengers on board. These men, women and children were bound for the New World on a gruelling voyage that would take 66 days.
They first landed near Cape Cod but did not settle here. A few weeks later the ship crossed the Massachusetts Bay and the settlers founded the small village named Plymouth, after the English town they had set sail from. As they arrived at the onset of Winter life turned out to be extremely difficult and only about half of the original pilgrims, as they have become to be known, actually survived the winter.
History tells us that the pilgrims made contact with Native American Indians who graciously helped the pilgrims to overcome starvation by showing them how to plant crops, fish the rivers and gather local fruit. At this early stage of European settlement of North America there was harmony and cooperation between the natives and the settlers, which unfortunately would not last for long.
The First Harvest
In the autumn of 1621, when the pilgrims had their first successful harvest of corn, the Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, decided that there should be a celebration to pay thanks for the successful harvest. So that November of 1621 the pilgrims and some Native Americans got together for a feast that apparently lasted two or three days.
This has become known as the first American Thanksgiving, and is a great example of how people can gain from cooperation, helpful teaching and free exchange of goods. But it would take many more years before Thanksgiving would become a national holiday throughout the Union.
Controversy Around The First Thanksgiving
While I have mentioned that history books tend to tell us that there was a lot of cooperation and pretty much harmony between Native Americans and the pilgrims, I should also mention that there is a certain amount of controversy around this way of telling the story.
Many Native American tribes today take great issue with the way the story is told stating that relations between early settlers and the natives were nowhere near as harmonious as is believed. The United American Indians of New England is a group of Native Americans that have established Thanksgiving as their National Day of Mourning, to protest racism and highlight that early settlement brought the start of a long cruel conflict which American Indians came out of on the losing side.
A National Holiday
One of the first states to declare Thanksgiving a holiday was New York in 1817 and many other states followed suite. But it would take more than 50 years of each state celebrating on a different date in November, and some states not celebrating at all, before it would become a national holiday.
It was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 at the height of the civil war. From 1863 until 1939, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November. President Roosevelt decided that it would be a good idea to spur retail sales by moving Thanksgiving one week forward, and the plan become known as Franksgiving. There was great opposition to this, as the holiday was not meant to be about commercial interests but rather a day of giving thanks.
The move didn't last long and in 1941 Roosevelt moved the date to the fourth Thursday in November. I have to say that I agree with the opposition, as one thing I dislike about many religious and family holidays is how commercialised they are. Christmas is one example where my family have made the conscious decision to abstain from the excessive buying of gifts, so I can see why there was so much opposition to the commercial interests of moving the holiday.
While the original intent of the holiday was based on religious beliefs, many non-religious Americans still celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that brings families and friends together. Whether or not the first Thanksgiving celebrations included Turkey is not known for certain, but it is definitely the highlight of pretty much all Thanksgiving feasts. Accompaniments can vary quite a lot from state to state, but I am told that stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce are also a must have.
A lot of my American friends and colleagues have also told me about many families having traditions of volunteering for charity work, especially in food kitchens for the poor and homeless. It is these things, the family get-together, the eating, the absence of piles of presents and the charitable work that I find so appealing about the celebration.
Black Friday And Cyber Monday
Another "tradition" that has become synonymous with Thanksgiving is Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These are the Friday and Monday immediately after Thanksgiving and are marked by sales and discounts in most retail outlets and online stores.
It is often accompanied by images of frenzied shoppers queuing outside retail outlets from early in the morning, running down the doors as soon as they open. Scenes of violence are not uncommon on this day that marks the beginning of the shopping season for Christmas.
As already mentioned, I dislike the fact that commercial interests take over what should be days of peaceful get-togethers of family and friends and it is a shame that these events get so much attention. Nevertheless, the idea and more traditional events of Thanksgiving do resonate well with me.
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