On the fourth Thursday of each November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It seems quite straightforward – a day to give thanks. But as with many things American, it is a little more complicated than that. To be sure, it is a day to remember our many blessings but also includes a bit of football, a bit of commerce and not a small amount of over indulgence.
The first Thanksgiving is clouded by controversy. Was it in the Massachusetts colony or Virginia? Most Americans consider the First Thanksgiving to be the feast between the Puritans and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts. Every school child remembers dressing up before Thanksgiving as either a Pilgrim or an Indian as the first participants in the Massachusetts colony were members of the Puritan faith who celebrated a successful harvest with their neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians.
The Puritans or Pilgrims, as they are interchangeably called, came to the shores of North America in November, 1620, aboard the Mayflower, a tiny, leaky ship which had sailed for an agonizing sixty six days from Plymouth, England. These bedraggled people had left England to find freedom from religious persecution. Their voyage had been star crossed from the start. They were blown off course and missed their original target of the Hudson River by well over 200 miles. They arrived at the beginning of the harsh New England winter with very few provisions, no idea of how to get more, no shelter and no hope of resupply until spring – if then. Over that first winter, half of them died. When spring finally came, they were saved from complete extinction by a friendly Pawtuxet named Squanto who had learned some English as a result of being captured by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping and returning to North America. He and the Wampanoags showed the Puritans how to plant crops and fertilize the New England soil with fish. They shared their knowledge and their food. After a successful harvest, the Puritans invited the Native Americans to join them in a three day celebration of their survival.
The concept and date of Thanksgiving varied from place to place and year to year until November 26, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving during the American Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt tried to alter the date to the third Thursday to boost Christmas sales during the Great Depression. But the backlash was so great that he established it as the fourth Thursday of November. The concept of Black Friday was born soon after. It refers to the Friday after Thanksgiving when many Americans flood the stores to begin Christmas shopping. Merchants then see their ledgers go from red ink signifying a loss to black ink signifying profits.
Modern Thanksgiving involves turkey and dressing with “all the fixin’s” (meaning many side dishes such as sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie). There is always a big parade in New York City and plenty of football.
The irony of the kindness shown the new immigrants to North America by the native people is hard to miss in light of the eventual deadly conflicts between the two groups as well as some of the current points of view on immigration. The Puritans hardly came to our shores able to sustain themselves. The generosity of the native people made it possible for their survival, the development of the English colonies, and eventually the United States of America.