For the moment, let’s assume the story of the “First Thanksgiving” is true.
You know, how the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621 sat down with the Indians and had a feast that set off an annual tradition in the colonies and then the United States? What we actually do know of that autumn feast is contained in only one paragraph in Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation.
All that is said, more or less, is that “we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours.” Over three days, they “entertained and feasted” with the Wampanoag, including “their greatest king Massosoit.” Generally, Puritan believers had a long tradition of days of thanksgiving, usually in honor of good fortune and often including fasting rather than gorging. This Pilgrim party, though, whatever it was, was not one of those days.
The one-paragraph extant Winslow account, written in the early 1620s, was pretty much lost to public knowledge until 1841 when Rev. Alexander Young rediscovered it for a book he was writing called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. In that tome, Young retroactively declared the Plymouth harvest celebration as the “first New England thanksgiving,” almost two hundred years later. But what we really had in 1621 was a very localized, very specific one-off celebration among 50 or so people and their Indian guests—a celebration for a successful harvest in a particular place after a harsh winter that had killed half the settler population.
Even by 1841, though, when Rev. Young was retconning history, New England thanksgivings were common practice, and they were always decidedly local—and had nothing to do with Pilgrims or national origin stories. They harkened back to the English harvest home tradition, which, while common folk practice, was a village rather than national celebration full of singing, shouting and decorating the town with boughs. The last sheaf of grain from the local fields was made into a harvest doll as a centerpiece of the revelry.
U.S. presidents sometimes declared national days of thanksgiving, but, for the most part, what people celebrated were state declarations, which were celebrated locally in ways not unfamiliar to us today—family, friends and neighbors gathering for a home or church-based feast. It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared the first regular national Thanksgiving, designating it as the last Thursday in November (now the fourth Thursday), though even that pronouncement had more political than cultural overtones, often seen as a call for national unity in the midst of the Civil War.
Lincoln was lobbied hard for this national holiday by the person who probably most singularly defined the modern Thanksgiving—Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale (also the author of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem) was a national tastemaker as editor of the influential Godey’s Ladies’ Book magazine, and she had been pushing for a national holiday since 1837. But despite her ambitions for national recognition of an already-common holiday, her Thanksgiving vision was still decidedly local and domestic, emphasizing the Victorian domestic sphere with the holiday full of family and neighborly communal tables. Since (and really before) then, Thanksgiving has been primarily about a return to the homestead and the reunion of family and community. Today, Thanksgiving remains the busiest holiday for travel, rivaling even Christmas as the time when most people feel they have to go home.
Charity toward those less fortunate has been a part of Thanksgiving since the 19th century, and, again, such gestures have been geared toward sharing our providence with those less fortunate in the community. As Penny Coleman points out in Thanksgiving: The True Story, in the mid-1800s, the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was feeding Manhattan’s poor children on Thanksgiving, and today, many volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinners in local homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, even the modern consumerist kickoff to the Christmas shopping season is of U.S. origin. The first department store Thanksgiving parade was Gimbels’ in Philadelphia in 1920, specifically geared toward calling children and families to the Christmas shopping wonders within the local store.
The Plymouth Pilgrim story was attached to Thanksgiving predominantly by late-19th-century progressives in search of national racial harmony (Pilgrims and Indians sharing the bounty and all that) and the promulgation of common national values in schoolrooms. Controversy obviously still abounds around the appropriation of Native images and falsification of history for this feel-good mythical concoction. But despite the persistence of the fabricated imagery of Pilgrim buckles and turkeys that hover over our November celebration even today, it remains mere background iconography for what Thanksgiving truly is—the return to home.
America’s harvest celebration is the most widespread celebration of the local we have. So as you sit down for this year’s turkey or Tofurky, give thanks for what we have given thanks for over hundreds of years—our homes; our families, friends and neighbors; and the community in which we find ourselves gathered together.