America’s Thanksgiving holiday: How it grew into what it's becomeHere's the facts: Almost all of these familiar assumptions we have about Thanksgiving in America are no more than a century or at most 200 years old. In reality, the modern American Thanksgiving didn’t spring into full-blown existence in the early 17th century, but evolved from several independent roots, and there were a number of significant changes along the way.
By: James Baker, Grand Forks Herald
PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Thanksgiving Day! What a wealth of sentimental imagery is evoked by this All-American holiday. Intrepid be-buckled Pilgrims and their dignified Indian neighbors sit down to dinner in the serenity of an eternally golden autumn afternoon.
Generations converge on old family homesteads, where white-haired grandparents welcome the returning members of the clan. High school and college football teams defend their scholastic honor under crisp blue fall skies. These traditional scenes are recognized by generations of Americans as the essence of Thanksgiving.
Americans also share other basic perceptions about the Thanksgiving holiday. They believe that the holiday has been observed in November since 1621 when the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors first met for an outdoor feast on a golden autumnal afternoon, and that it had its origin in the universal tradition of harvest celebrations.
But the fact is that almost all of these familiar assumptions are no more than a century or at most 200 years old. In reality, the modern American Thanksgiving didn’t spring into full-blown existence in the early 17th century, but evolved from several independent roots, and there were a number of significant changes along the way.
Perhaps the most important forgotten facts are that Thanksgiving did not have its origin in earlier harvest customs nor did it begin with any single “first Thanksgiving,” at Plymouth or elsewhere.
The holiday was brought to America by the English colonists as a purely religious observance for the recognition of God’s blessings that could be and was declared at any time of the year. Only later did it become the general custom to have the holiday near the end of the year, when it was thought fitting to thank God for all of his providential mercies during the entire year, not just for the harvest.
The most significant alteration in the public perception about Thanksgiving came from the holiday’s eventual connection with the Pilgrims and their famous 1621 “first Thanksgiving.” Although this change did not begin until the mid-19th century and wasn’t a dominant factor until a century later, the connection completely transformed our understanding of both the holiday and the Pilgrims in popular culture.
By 1800, it had become customary to celebrate Thanksgiving in late November. This was early winter in the northern states where the holiday was most popular, and Thanksgiving was then popularly associated with snow and sleighing rather than pumpkins and cornstalks.
Then in 1841, the Rev. Alexander Young published the recently rediscovered full text of Mourt’s Relation, a record of the first year of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth. It contained the only account of the 1621 harvest celebration, which had been until then entirely forgotten. More important, he asserted in a footnote that it was the “First Thanksgiving” in America.
This casual identification of the event as the “First Thanksgiving” started the ball rolling toward our modern conceptualization of the holiday. Although the 1621 harvest season event presumably took place about the end of September and in no way resembled a true 17th-century Thanksgiving, it did appear to the liberal 19th-century Unitarian minister to be a lot like the secularized holiday of his own time.
It would take several generations for the idea to fully overcome the older wintry depictions of the holiday, but by the early 20th century, the image of the Pilgrims dining with their American Indian neighbors amid the splendors of a New England autumn had begun to capture the imagination of the American public. It was not long before Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, and the celebration of the harvest became indelibly associated in popular culture, together with the fond assumption that it had always been so.
By 1900, all of the other images and perceptions (except for the parades, which began in the 1920s) were in place, and the contemporary view of the history of the holiday was universally accepted. Historians made concerted attempts to trace the holiday back to 1621, and to find precedents in harvest customs the world over. Growing up in Plymouth, Mass., after World War II, I took this position for granted.
But after searching for classical scenes of the open-air Pilgrim dinner in Victorian art for an exhibit of Pilgrim images at Plimoth Plantation and not finding any, I wondered why this was so. The fact that there were absolutely no references to the Pilgrim festival before 1840 led me to research the matter more fully and arrive at the conclusions above.
Baker is author of “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday” (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009).