The True History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving day feastToday is Thanksgiving in the United States, and American families everywhere are coming together to celebrate the harvest, family, country, and all the good that happened over the past year.

Today we eat, drink, and are merry. We watch parades and (American) football. We commemorate brotherhood and the coming together of the Pilgrims and Native Americans, and remember the first Thanksgiving with its turkey, corn, gravy, pumpkin pie, and all those other goodies.

Or so the myth goes.

The real Thanksgiving has little to do with any of that. Thanksgiving was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War. While many other states already had a “Thanksgiving,” it was more to celebrate the harvest than to celebrate country and unity. The holiday was created to do both at a time when Americans were the most divided they had ever been—when American identity was at stake. Thanksgiving was a way to unite the divided country, remember our pioneering spirit, and heal the wounds of war. It had been a bad year for the Union, and Lincoln needed to boost morale. Under pressure from famed magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress declared it to be the 4th Thursday.

The real first “Thanksgiving” was very different than what we imagine. The Pilgrims relied heavily on the Native Americans to survive that first winter in 1620 in the New World and help plant the first crops. Many didn’t make it, and the remaining settlers who did survive the first year celebrated the new harvest (and being alive) with a feast. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true “Thanksgiving.” It lasted three days and occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11.

Thanksgiving scene from historyThe food we now associate with the holiday was mostly unknown to the colonists. They probably didn’t have turkey, but more likely water fowl from nearby (most likely geese). And deer, as the Native American chief brought five with him. No potatoes, as they hadn’t been introduced yet, no pumpkin pie, since they had no flour, and no cranberries, though some might have been used for their tartness. It wasn’t until 50 years later that they were cooked in sugar. There was lots of salt and probably a lot of seafood, corn, and a few greens there. However, the meal consisted mainly of meat. Vegetarians were out of luck—no good greens and no tofurkey.

There were about 90 Native Americans and 52 Pilgrims at the event, and they played games and did activities besides just eating. They used Squanto as an interpreter since he spoke a little English, but what they talked about is anyone’s guess. There are only two surviving records of that day, and both leave out the details. Everything we think about the holiday has been sensationalized over the last few centuries.

Despite the holiday’s myth not living up to its reality, it’s still an important day in American culture. Today begins the holiday season and the subsequent shopping season. More importantly, it’s a day where we remember that we are one nation—through the good and the bad. We come together and, for at least one day, put our differences aside. Around the country and world, Americans are celebrating with their friends and family nothing more than each other’s company and the belt-bursting food that comes with it.

And, of course, football.

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  1. I know the history behind Thanksgiving is shaky to fabricated, but Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Good food, family, friends, no pressure to buy gifts (like Christmas), football and just a relaxing time. I dream of the traditional Thanksgiving spread throughout the rest of the year – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, etc.

    Overseas, Thanksgiving is a time when Americans and their local friends get together to celebrate – it becomes surprisingly important and nostalgic. This year, I’m having Thanksgiving back in the States for the first time in seven years. Can’t wait for the turkey to roll out!

  2. Ron in L.A.

    College Football?

    Well, the Lions are playing tommorow. Maybe that counts as non-professional…

    Happy T-day Matt…

    R(etc… )

  3. Debo Hobo

    Although I don’t agree with your history on the matter, it is truly the best holiday of the year. Lots of food, family and fun.

    Oh and of course the Cowboys get to trounce all over the Seahawks!

    :) Happy Thanksgiving my friend:)

  4. NomadicMatt

    @audrey @debo hobo: yes despite the history, it is still the best american holiday out there!!!

    @quickroute yes, i am going to this dinner at one of the nearby restaurants

  5. Being a vegetarian is a luxury only the truly fortunate can afford. Much of the world – including the pilgrims and native americans at the first thanksgiving – eats whatever they can get their hands on to survive.

    • The overconsumption of meat by the “truly fortunate” is one of the main drivers of famine and starvation the world over because feeding plants to farm animals wastes vast amounts of energy and resources. If people ate those plants directly, there would be enough food to feed all humans currently on the planet.

  6. very interesting…thanks for sharing matt..coming from a country which has its share of festivals …i can see a lot has evolved over the india however this is a black thursday

  7. Eva

    “Being a vegetarian is a luxury only the truly fortunate can afford.”

    Not in India.

    In most of the world in fact, meat is the luxury only the truly fortunate can afford. The staples of the poor around the world for centuries have been things like corn (maize), rice, wheat, potatoes, cabbage…

  8. dani

    Im actually happy to be out of the country for Thanksgiving. I dont get the holiday. Never have. Its my least favourite next to Valentine’s Day (yes, im a girl. Yes i think that holiday is stupid).

    So im actually wicked happy to not be forced to stuff my face, watch football, and sleep. Dont get me wrong, i love doing all those things. And i love my family and our family dinners. I just dont get why we have to do it to celebrate something that never actually really happened in the way we are celebrating it.

  9. Chris

    Phew! Part of me thought this might be some really sarcastic post about Americans slaughtering the Native Americans and taking their land.

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