Thanksgiving started with a simple harvest celebration. Although it eventually grew to include parades, football games, and Black Friday sales, it remains a time of reflection. On Thanksgiving, it is important to remember the past, look forward to the future, and give thanks for our blessings.
Nearly 400 years ago, the Pilgrims left England to escape religious persecution. They risked their lives to travel to the New World, which promised freedom and prosperity. Essentially, they were looking for the American Dream.
Although the Pilgrims faced brutal weather and devastating disease, those who survived went on to establish the village of Plymouth.
In November 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a feast celebrating the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest. The governor invited several Native American allies, including Wampanoag Chief Massasoit. Although the feast was not called Thanksgiving, Bradford and his men were thankful for their harvest and to the local natives.
Without the help of a Native American named Squanto, the settlers would not have survived. Although Squanto was previously kidnapped and held as a slave, he spoke English and was willing to teach the pilgrims about the land.
He taught them how to fish, to plant and grow corn, and how to harvest maple from the trees. He also arranged an agreement between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
The harvest celebration lasted three days. Unlike our current Thanksgiving dinner, the Pilgrims and Native Americans most likely feasted on lobster, seal, deer, and swan. The dishes were most likely prepared according to Native American tradition, with spices that were readily available at the time. Although it was quite different from our current celebrations, it was the feast that began the tradition.
Subsequent harvest celebrations were much less friendly. Throughout the 1600s, several similar feasts were held. However, many of the celebrations were overshadowed by tension, controversy, and scandal.
The harvest and thanksgiving celebrations continued throughout the 1700s. In 1789, the nation’s first President George Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation. In the proclamation, Washington suggested a day of “public thanksgiving” to celebrate the country’s freedom and ratification of the United States Constitution.
Although several states declared their own days of Thanksgiving, there was no specific national holiday until 1863. Amid the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation, designating the last Thursday in November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God… ” Lincoln asked the citizens of America give thanks for their freedom, health, happiness, and prosperity.
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.”
Both Washington and Lincoln envisioned Thanksgiving as a day for Americans to thank God for their blessings. Through the years, the religious connotation has diminished considerably.
In 1924, Macy’s hosted their first Thanksgiving Day Parade. The first parade included several floats and numerous animals from the Central Park Zoo. Within the next few years, the iconic department store added the first giant helium-filled balloon: Felix the Cat. This year Macy’s will host their 89th annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In 1934, the Detroit Lions played their first Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears. As reported by USA Today, the Lions have played every Thanksgiving Day since 1945, adding football to the list of holiday traditions.
Thanksgiving was celebrated on the final Thursday in November for 76 years. In 1939, President Roosevelt changed the day to the third Thursday in November. Although he changed the date to boost holiday sales, his decision received stark criticism. The date was eventually changed back to the fourth Thursday in 1941.
In the 1980s, the day after Thanksgiving was labeled as Black Friday by retail merchants. As many retailers offer significant discounts, Black Friday has become the official start of the holiday shopping season.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush became the first president to pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
Although Thanksgiving has gone through many changes in the last 392 years, the basic premise remains. Behind the parades, football games, and sales, the last Thursday in November is still a day of giving thanks.
This Thanksgiving, we can be thankful that nearly 400 years later the American Dream still exists. Despite our political and religious differences, we can be thankful that we still have the freedom to pursue our dreams.