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The History of Thanksgiving

By Skylar Bell Brenner, Entertainment Editor

Many of us are taught about the first Thanksgiving when we were in elementary school. We heard the story of how the Pilgrims in the Plymouth colony came together with the neighboring Indians to feast and celebrate the harvest. However, this celebration was secular and not about a religious day of thanksgiving.

From the eyes of the Pilgrim’s, the first Thanksgiving took place a few years later. There had been a destructive drought during the summer of 1623, leading the Pilgrims to begin to fear as their resources ran low.

Dr. Rich Traylor, professor of history, spoke a while back on the history of Thanksgiving. “In July 1623, they [the Pilgrims] prayed and fasted collectively and then the rains came, and news arrived that the supply ship was safe and on its way...they celebrated with religious services in a day of thanksgiving and praise,” Dr. Traylor said.

The Pilgrims would occasionally celebrate this miracle with a day of thanksgiving, but they were not annual, nor were they known for feasting. Feasting was reserved for fall harvest festivals. The Puritans in Massachusetts also celebrated a day of thanksgiving often and had a separate feast for fall harvest festivals. “Over the next 150 years, the differences between the fall harvest festival and the solemn occasions became blurred in popular culture,” Dr. Traylor said.

Many disagreed about how a day of thanksgiving should be celebrated, as the holiday varied across different states. Eventually, social innovator, Sarah Josepha Hale, pushed for this day of celebration and thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

“America, Hale thought, needed a custom that would restore the centrality of all that was good in New England’s nostalgic past. It was the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863 as well as Hale’s entreaties that encouraged Abraham Lincoln to declare a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November,” Dr. Traylor said.

Dr. Traylor elaborated about being in the middle of the Civil War during this time. “Lincoln’s Thanksgiving celebrated the hope of American nationhood as difficult as that might be to achieve in the wake of the Civil War,” said Dr. Traylor.

Overtime, Thanksgiving has evolved as it has become more centered around football, Americanizing immigrants, commercialism and The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

“For devout Christians, the holiday had been about prayer and praise. For Sarah Josepha Hale, it was about family. For Lincoln, it was about union. For turn of the century football fans, it was about college rivalries. For Progressives, it was about a secularized American culture. And for Macy’s, it was about sales,” Dr. Traylor said.

During World War I, Norman Rockwell painted the famous painting “Freedom from Want”, inspired by one of Roosevelt’s speech. The painting pictured a family around the table at Thanksgiving, serving as a cultural symbol of what Thanksgiving has always meant, minus the religious connotations.

Today, Thanksgiving is a celebration of all of these elements that have become associated with the holiday over time.

“Thanksgiving has not just been about attitude, but how attitudes about the day have changed over time to create for each generation a festival that met their needs and only gradually has developed into the festival that we recognize,” Dr. Traylor said.


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