A Brief History of a Lasting Tradition - TribPapers
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A Brief History of a Lasting Tradition

WeavervilleThanksgiving Day is the annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. In general, Americans believe that their Thanksgiving Day is modeled after 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. Traditional fare of the Thanksgiving meal typically includes turkey, bread stuffing, potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie. 

Colonial Roots

Historically, Plymouth’s Thanksgiving began with a few members of the Wampanoag tribe going out “fowling,” possibly for turkeys but probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks. Next, 90 or so 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, 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 rather disorderly affair 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 18th President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

Establishing a National Holiday

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.

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.

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, an act of Congress made Thanksgiving, and other federal holidays, paid time off for all federal workers throughout the nation. 

From 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, no longer at the discretion of the president. Yet, not all states complied. After a joint resolution of Congress in 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation the following year designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.

Woman at a Wampanoag village. Creative Commons.

As the country became more urban and family members began living further apart, Thanksgiving became a time to gather together. The holiday moved away from its religious roots, allowing immigrants of every background and culture to participate in a common tradition. As time went on, Thanksgiving Day meant football games, beginning with Yale versus Princeton in 1876. This enabled fans to add some rowdiness to the holiday. In the late 1800s, parades of costumed citizens 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 larger-than-life 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.

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