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Origins of Thanksgiving

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“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” – Woody Allen

We have all heard about the tales of Pilgrims being greeted by the Indians and both enjoying a bountiful feast in 1621. While the story may be true, its relation to the holiday of Thanksgiving is non-existent.

There are in fact plenty of reasons to think that the story of the feast itself is a concoction. The story is based on a single letter written by Edward Winslow from Plymouth on December 11, 1621 to his parents:

Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner reioyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodneses of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Part of the story is also corroborated by Governor William Bradford’s comments about the harvest but Winslow’s letter is the only first person account of the event. If the feast did take place, it occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11 and lasted for about three days.

The “thanksgiving” tradition is a vestige of the harvest festival of the Native Americans. The Wampanoag Indians, initial allies to the pilgrims, celebrated six thanksgiving festivals during a year. The ‘native’ celebration was close to English tradition of harvest festival (Michaelmas), celebrated on September 29th. Winslow’s religious interpretation of the feast is doubtable because the Puritan way of “thanking” generally included fasting, atonement and praying. Winslow’s more religious account of the event can hence be attributed to the Puritan way of writing.

Thayer Williams of San Jose’ State University has one more interpretation. After researching Bradford’s papers, he found that “It was the shift from communal farming to private farming in which the people in the Plymouth Colony got to keep the benefits of their own efforts instead of sharing in a communal effort… [that prompted thanksgiving]” read more

From the initial days, Thanksgiving did evolve into a more religious festival, especially after the religious fasting in rainless 1623 resulted in rain. “On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include the Indians, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the “heathen natives.” read more

Thanksgiving evolved further after the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress “recognized the need to give thanks for delivering the country from war and into independence.” Congress issued a proclamation on October 11, 1782:

…Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.

Lincoln issued his own thanksgiving proclamation after emerging victorious in the Civil War in 1863,

….No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

So the uniquely Christian interpretation of Thanksgiving has emerged over the years, following religious proclamations by American Presidents year after year.

Thanksgiving went through one more strange event in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season. “In 1941, this unpopular move inspired Congress to permanently fix the date on the fourth Thursday of November.”

By the way, Happy Thanksgiving!

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