Home Commentary Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving the Way We Do

Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving the Way We Do


In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.  Thanksgiving feasts at the end of harvest were nothing new to the colonists as people in Europe had been having such feasts for centuries. But It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the last Thursday in November. This fact has largely gotten lost as we have built of the myth of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. There are several other facts about Thanksgiving that have gotten lost in our modern interpretation of Thanksgiving.


This week we will celebrate with Turkey on our tables. Pumpkins have also become the new Thanksgiving Day fad. In the past few years, pumpkin has been added to a wide variety of food and non-food items.  From your latte at Starbucks to ice cream to Yankee candles, pumpkin flavor is everywhere.  Yet, pumpkin pie was not served at the first Thanksgiving.  The Plymouth colonists did not have ovens, and the sugar supply that would have been brought from England would have been used up long before.  So there were no pies at the first Thanksgiving. There were also no potatoes since that vegetable had not yet been introduced into the new world. Corn, however, was part of the first feast.


While there were no turkeys at that first feast, there were some other items that will not likely be on your table this year. Historical records show that the Wampanoag Indians brought 5 deer to the feast. In addition to the venison, other meat dishes likely included lobster (plentiful in the nearby ocean) and swan. While we do not eat swan today, it was a common dish in England at the time and would have been familiar to the colonists. The first Thanksgiving lasted 3 days, but was not repeated the next year. It was not until 1789 that an annual celebration of Thanksgiving become popular. It was George Washington who suggested the last Thursday in November be chosen as Thanksgiving day.


Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday. During the Civil War he called for a day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated at the end of November. The Thanksgiving he had in mind was not so much for a successful harvest but for the preservation of the Union. But the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday was not Lincoln’s. The reason we have Thanksgiving today is due in large part to the personal crusade of one woman.


Sara Josepha Hale, the first female magazine editor in the US and author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, created the story of the first Thanksgiving. This fictional account of the pilgrims and Indians celebrating was drawn from some diaries of early life in the colonies. Beginning in 1827, she began a crusade for a national day of Thanksgiving. She even started publishing recipes for turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and other staples of our Thanksgiving meals today, but that were not part of the first Thanksgiving. She is also the one who suggested the idea to President Lincoln, who saw the value of such a day to help heal the wounds of a divided nation.


This Thanksgiving, we again face a nation and a world that is divided. Acts of terrorism have divided nations along religious and ethnic lines. As we gather, let us give thanks for our bounty, our security, and our freedom. Let us pray for those in this world who do not have these.  Over half of those who started out from England for the new world died of disease and malnutrition by the first Thanksgiving. Those who remained had much for which to be thankful. Today let us focus on the blessings we share rather than what separates us.


While you are preparing you Thanksgiving meal, you may want to sing Mary Had  little Lamb, in honor of Sara Josepha Hale, the woman who really invented Thanksgiving Day.


By Gary Truitt