These days, families and friends across the United States take for granted the existence of Thanksgiving. We gather together to overindulge on food, drink and conversation, and seldom think about how this day came to be.
While every holiday’s origin has its own unique story (and, at times, mystique), Thanksgiving is in a class of its own, namely because of how it brought together two groups of seemingly different people—Native Americans and Pilgrims.
In fact, the event that we typically refer to as the “First Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans, and marked a celebration following the Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World, in October 1621.
But it wasn’t the first Thanksgiving – New England colonists regularly held thanksgivings, which were days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. These types of feasts were also commonplace in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607.
Nor did the 1621 feast immediately turn the last Thursday of November into a national holiday. That didn’t actually occur until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was President.
Nonetheless, it’s fitting that on a day when family far and wide come together for one meal, what we are doing is paying tribute to a moment in history when two could-be adversaries put differences aside to rejoice in a bountiful harvest.
By joining forces, rather than entangling in a bitter rivalry, the Pilgrims and Native Americans did so much more than establish one of the most cherished holidays in the U.S. They helped kick off an entire holiday season.
In modern times, Thanksgiving has become an integral part of our economy. Even back in 1939 (where it just so happened November was to have 5 Thursdays), President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-standing tradition, declaring that Thanksgiving be held on the second-to-last Thursday. He made clear that his decision was influenced by the Great Depression the country was still in. Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants more revenue because of an extended holiday season.
His proclamation came with mixed reviews (people like to stick to tradition). 22 states kept the last Thursday as Thanksgiving, while 23 sided with FDR, making a unique and divided time in the history of this holiday.
Texas couldn’t decide, and opted to recognize both days as federal holidays.
For more than a century, Thanksgiving has meant so much more than a commemoration of a singular feast hundreds of years ago. It’s been the signpost of a seasonal shift. As Thanksgiving approaches, so too does the holiday season, as is made abundantly clear by the NYC Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which ends its festivities each year with Santa Claus waving to the crowd.
In more modern times, Thanksgiving marks the eve of Black Friday, a day when consumerism is on full display. Each year billions of dollars are spent to target consumers on this one day. And, even more recently, Black Friday has taken on new meaning. With the advent of the internet, more and more people shop online. This shift has had a negative impact on brick-and-mortar retailers, who count on the holiday season to stay in the black, financially speaking (hence why it’s called Black Friday).
Nowadays, Black Friday represents consumerism as it was pre-internet. It’s nearly a relic of life as it once was. While Black Friday is surely still an event of its own, more and more people are choosing to stay home that day to shop online, or, take a page out of outdoor retailer REI’s book and “opt outside.”
When we look at the Thanksgiving holiday season, we can’t help but see a flurry of differing opinions and perspectives pop up. Retailers vs. online merchants. Folks who shop vs. folks who soak in the outdoors. People who believe Thanksgiving is an insult to Native American history and people who cherish it as a pillar of American culture.
We can’t help but recognize the irony.
Nearly 400 years ago, two groups of people who all but had no reason to get along with one another, put differences aside and, instead, came together to celebrate their mutual fortunes. The result was the advent of a generational and, seemingly, eternal, holiday.
Times have changed. In many ways life is more challenging, but in many ways it’s not (for example, few of us have reason to celebrate a bountiful harvest; we shop at the always bountiful supermarket).
But if we just took a moment to realize the incredible impact Thanksgiving has in our culture – in countless ways – and if we remember the two parties responsible for making this tradition come to fruition in the first place, maybe we could put our differences aside for just a few hours and rejoice in our collective fortunes as a country.
You never know what happens when you join forces who think, act, or look differently than you. You may very well disrupt an entire nation for centuries to come.