History and Meanings of American Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is popularly modeled on a romanticized view of the Pilgrims of Plimouth Colony in Massachusetts in the 1620s. The story tends to go that they held a feast to thank both the Native Americans who had helped them survive through the winter and God whom they believed had led them to the New World. This mythology is reflected in the images of Pilgrims and generic Native Americans that are frequently seen during the holiday. Historians have shown, though, that the Plimoth celebration was probably similar to a British harvest festival: rowdy, boisterous, much eating and play and very little solemn, religious content. Another Thanksgiving in Berkeley Plantation in Virginia actually preceded the Plimoth one and was a somber, formal ceremony of prayer and offering of thanks, probably accompanied by fasting.

The 1865 proclamation was a political move to create a sense of national unity, and later additions to the holiday have focused on the formulaic national meal featuring a whole roast turkey representing the natural abundance of the nation. While eating is the featured activity of the holiday (along with watching football on television and visiting family and friends), there are attempts by religious and civic organizations to remind people to think of it as a day for counting one’s blessings and showing gratefulness. Some also see it as a day representing the domination and destruction of native peoples, and therefore, a day of sorrow. For many individuals, though, the variety of possible interpretations tend to take a back seat to the holiday being a welcome break from school and work and an opportunity to indulge oneself.

CONNECT: What does Thanksgiving mean to you personally? What do you look forward to the most about Thanksgiving? (or dread?)

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