The True Story of Thanksgiving

November 2013

This is the time of year when parents attend Thanksgiving pageants at their children’s schools, and help with designing their costumes. Will my child be a Pilgrim or an Indian this year?

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and the ideas we have of it come from 19th patriotic painters, working centuries after the event. As such, they are laced with myths. The truth behind this day is very fascinating.

Days of Thanksgiving have been celebrated since ancient times; prosperous years, military victories, surviving disasters, and other things thanking deities for their intervention. The first thanksgiving in North America was celebrated by the Spaniards in the 15th century. Jamestown, VA started from 1607. But the one we commemorate is the 1621 celebration between the Indians and the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were a group of Brownist English Dissenters, and not Puritans as is usually depicted or how I was taught in school. Calvinist in their outlook, they saw their worship as incompatible with the teachings of the Church of England, while the Puritans wanted to reform the church from within. The Pilgrims did not dress in the black clothes and big hats we see; more on that later. Although they once referred to themselves as pilgrims, the term was not coined for around 170 years later.

These Brownists as they were called at the time, left England for Holland after they discovered that James I would not allow complete freedom of worship. However, Holland did not prove much better. The young people in the group were assimilating too well in Dutch culture, adopting the Dutch language, culture, and values.

In order to retain control of these young people, the group obtained a charter to travel to the New World. Hoping for Virginia, after a miserable 65 day trip, they missed and landed on Plymouth Rock in New England. (If your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, they were not Puritans.)

New England is very similar to England environmentally, and the settlers did have some experience in agriculture, They were surprised to encounter Sqaunto, a Patuxet Wampanoag Indian who spoke English. He was a former slave who had eventually made his way home. He taught the settlers how to catch eels and grow corn.

The pilgrims held a three day feast in 1621 to celebrate their successful harvest. Squanto died the next year, either from poisoning or illness.

The Puritans did not establish their colony until 1628. During the English Civil Wars, many went back to fight, or to live in the Puritan dominated military dictatorship of the 1650s. However, the public backlash against them was so extreme after the death of Oliver Cromwell, when Charles II came to the throne they fled to Massachusetts in droves, and dominated that colony from then on.

So, when the 19th century painters did their works, they used the predominant Puritan culture for the Pilgrims. They also painted the Indians in the style of the Plains Indians, since Indian culture was practically unknown in New England at the time.

Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on and off in the United States, but became an official holiday in 1863. It was to be the last Thursday in November. President Roosevelt moved it to the next to the last Thursday in the month at the urging of Fred Lazarus Jr. the founder of Macys, to extend the Christmas shopping season. (It was considered tacky to advertise for Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving back then.) In 1940 and 1941, this made it the third Thurday in the month.

There was a large public outcry, so on December 26, 1941 (nineteen days after the Pearl Harbor attack), a Federal law was passed making it the fourth Thursday in November.

So, have a Happy Thanksgiving with all of your family and friends!

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