January 15, 2021
link to facebook link to twitter

Thanksgiving – a historical look

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
November 27, 2020

We hope you had a peaceful and safe Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the blessings we have. We gather to do so with family and friends or at local community events. We watch parades or football games waiting for whatever our traditional holiday meals are served. On Thanksgiving, Americans tend to eat more food than on any other day of the year. I’m stuffed doesn’t just refer to a turkey. It’s often thought to be a uniquely American holiday; but it isn’t. Other countries have their own traditions for giving thanks. Holding feasts and festivals to celebrate the blessing of a bountiful harvest, predates the European settlement of North America. Nevertheless, let’s look at the history of what is sometimes call the “American Thanksgiving.”

According to “Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001” the first documented thanksgiving services in the territory now belonging to the United States were conducted by Spaniards and the French in the 16th century. As early as 1607, these services were routine in what has become the Commonwealth of Virginia. The first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia held one in 1610. 

The most prominent historic thanksgiving is likely the one you learned in school. It’s part of the American popular culture. In 1621 a celebration at the Plymouth Plantation was held by settlers, called Pilgrims, after a successful growing season. Only fifty Pilgrims remained of the 100 that arrived on the Mayflower. The others perished in the first years of harsh winter and diseases. Native Americans reached out to them, taught them how to catch eel and grow corn. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe, also gave food to them when supplies brought from England proved insufficient. So, after the bountiful harvest, they were joined by 90 Native Americans for a three-day festival.

The Continental Congress issued the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777. George Washington, commander of revolutionary forces, proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December of that year as a victory celebration after the defeat of the British at Saratoga. These early proclamations continued under President Washington and Adams as “national days of prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving” according to “Thanksgiving” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. A proclamation issued on November 5, 1782 set November 28, 1782 as a solemn Thanksgiving to God for all his mercies: and… “their gratitude to God for his goodness…” This may have been the root for having this holiday observed on the fourth Thursday of November.

President Thomas Jefferson chose not to observe the holiday, so it was intermittently observed until President Abraham Lincoln again proclaimed it as a national day of “Thanksgiving” in 1863. Then on June 28, 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the “Holidays Act” that made Thanksgiving a yearly appointed federal holiday in Washington, D.C. On January 6, 1885 by an Act of Congress, Thanksgiving and other holidays became federal holidays throughout the United States. In 1942, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the permanent observation date was set as the fourth Thursday in November.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of food. We think of mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce and various fall vegetables. The main dish isn’t always turkey, sometimes it’s a ham, perhaps a prime rib or even venison. It’s also a time of charity. The poor were often provided with food at Thanksgiving time. Many, if not most, communities have annual food drives to collect canned foods or non-perishable packaged foodstuffs. Many non-profits, senior centers, or other organizations enlist volunteers to serve Thanksgiving dinners to hundreds of people in need of a hot meal. Due to the pandemic, this year that primarily means drive through or to go meals.

Whether giving thanks to the God you worship, or thanks for the blessings you have received, Thanksgiving is often a tradition within families. Many times, the elder leads the family in a prayer of thanks before the meal is served. Sometimes, each diner is asked to give a specific reason they’re thankful this year. Yet the day isn’t without its controversy. For some, it represents a “national day of mourning” because of the genocide and conquest of Native Americans by colonists. However, the perception of Native Americans is not universally negative. Tim Giago, founder of the Native American Journalists Organization has said “The idea of a day of Thanksgiving has been a part of the Native American landscape for centuries.”