Most Americans celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving in some form or fashion. This time is often spent with families and loved ones, relaxing, and enjoying food, company and fall weather. The federal holiday is widely celebrated by people from both religious and secular backgrounds, and it holds a central place in the culture of the many American families.
Most people raised in the United States are also familiar with the myth of the first Thanksgiving; the idyllic meeting of Europeans and Native Americans who came together to celebrate and give thanks for a bountiful harvest. The spirit and ideal of this myth is attractive, and that is perhaps why it not only survives, but thrives in the mainstream cultural consciousness of the modern United States. But, is there any truth to this origin story that we all learned in grade school?
There is actually little historical consensus on when the first thanksgiving is supposed to have taken place, but 1621 is a year that is commonly touted as the actual origin of this tradition. There is some documentation of a harvest festival at this time that was celebrated by the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation. Around this time (and earlier), the puritans were certainly celebrating days of fasting and days of thanks quite often, but the religious observance of days of fasting and days of thanks by the Puritans did not begin in North America. The practice has its roots in much earlier European traditions. Some historians believe that prior to their immigration, the pilgrims were probably influenced by similar harvest festivals in Europe, such as the annual services in remembrance of the relief of the siege of Leiden which was a precursor to Oktober Feest.
Early Puritan Pilgrim celebrations were impromptu religious holidays and were not fixed in the way that we think of the national holiday today. The strict religious nature of the Puritan society in early America shaped these days of thanks and they would have looked quite different than the revelry we currently celebrate with family, feast, and football.
Another disputed aspect of this myth is the notion of cooperation between the early American settlers and the Native inhabitants. Due to inconsistent documentation at best, it is difficult to prove that a meeting like the one we see at modern Thanksgiving pageants did not take place. In fact, due to the proximity of colonists and Native Americans, some level of cooperation almost certainly took place in some areas. There is, however, a dark side to the story that is less often told. While cooperation between peoples was possible, conflict was frequent and inevitable. In 1637, the Massachusetts governor held a day of thanksgiving to celebrate a group of colonists that had recently returned for an outing that resulted in the deaths of 700 Pequot Indians. Incidents like these are seldom remembered as potential candidates for the origin of one of our most popular family holiday traditions. The modern version of the holiday has its roots much later in American history. On Nov 26, 1789 George Washington declared the first national day of thanksgiving “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God”. Local, state and federal governments often intermittently announced official days of thanks from this point on. Some form of the holiday has been observed every year since 1863 by presidential proclamation, and in 1941 the federal government legislated that we celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday every November; the popular annual tradition continues to this day.