Thanksgiving: It’s Meaning And History

Thanksgiving is a beloved national holiday that reminds us all to be grateful for all that we have. It is a day in which families come together to eat all the classic Thanksgiving fixings: turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and more. Why exactly do we celebrate every fourth Thursday of November? 

The First Thanksgiving

It all goes back to 1621, when historians believe the first Thanksgiving took place. The pilgrims of Plymouth Colony (located in present-day Massachusetts) sat down with the Wampanoag natives for a three-day feast. This meal is, oftentimes, romanticized as a symbol of peace and unity. 

While the Wampanoag and the pilgrims united for the first Thanksgiving, their alliance did not last. Curator of the National Museum of the American Indian, Ann McMullen believed that the Wampanoag thought an alliance with the colonists would strengthen them against neighboring tribes. This peace, however, didn’t last very long.  According to food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson, by the end of 1937, the colonists had declared war on the neighboring tribes. Ultimately, the Plymouth colonists, much like the colonists all over both American continents, pillaged and massacred the surrounding Native American tribes.

A National Holiday

Although the first Thanksgiving was not exactly a day of remembrance and gratitude, its meaning has evolved over the years. In the early years of the United States, it was usually governors or priests who  declared thanksgiving days. Thanksgiving wasn’t declared on any specific day, but instead celebrated things such as the end of a drought or a military battle against Native Americans. It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, that  an American tradition was established. It was also Lincoln who established the last Thursday of November to be the day of Thanksgiving. This was an attempt to form a unified national identity, as the country was undergoing a civil war at the time of Lincoln’s presidency. In his proclamation he encouraged the nation to heal, unite, and bring, “peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.”

Thanksgiving, as we know it today, is a day meant to spend with family and give thanks. This, however, has not always been its meaning. It is important to remember that, for Native Americans, this holiday carries a legacy of violence, racism, and genocide.