As an American citizen living in Germany, today is just another regular work day here, but of course I still celebrate Thanksgiving, and do so by having a lavish turkey dinner on Friday evening with friends and family. For the non-Americans who visit this site, here’s a short version of how Thanksgiving started and became a tradition.
The Pilgrims escape oppression in Europe
Giving thanks and celebrating festivals for successful harvests had existed for centuries, way before the first American Thanksgiving. Giving thanks in America started when the first Pilgrims came to Massachusetts (Plymouth Rock) from England on the Mayflower in 1620. The Pilgrims came to the New World to escape persecution and oppression, particularly from the Church of England, kind of like how climate skeptics are oppressed by the Church of Climatology today.
The Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock and many starve to death because of climate
The Mayflower with its 102 passengers had been originally bound for Jamestown, Virginia, but Atlantic storms blew the ship north to Massachusetts (Storms back then had natural causes, and were not man made ;). The first winter there was especially harsh, and because they had arrived too late they could not grow crops and they didn’t have fresh food. Half the Pilgrims on the Mayflower died of mal-nutrition and starvation during the first winter alone. But despite the extreme hardship, these newcomers had some luck, as it was the tradition of the local Wampanoag Indians, led by Chief Massasoit, to share food with any visitors.
The Indians teach the Pilgrims adaptation, and not useless mitigation
The following spring, in 1621, the Indians taught them how to grow corn (maize) and introduced cranberries, which were new foods for the new settlers. They also showed them how to grow other crops like beans, pumpkins and squash in the strange soil. The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and fish as well. Back then, the Indians taught the Pilgrims that it was useless to mitigate climate. Now just imagine if the Pilgrims had resorted to rain dancing and forbidden tree cutting. We can be thankful they were smarter then our political leaders of today.
The fruits of adaptation
After the first harvest had been completed by the new colonists in the autumn of 1621, the colonists had an abundance of food (the wonders of adaptation!). Governor William Bradford therefore proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer. And to thank the Indians for teaching them how to survive in the New World, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock invited their Indian friends to their first Thanksgiving. It was a three day celebration to give thanks to God and the leaders of the Wampanoag Indians.
Thanksgiving spreads to other states and declared a national holiday
After the first Plymouth Thanksgiving, the custom spread to the other colonies. But each region chose its own date. In 1789 George Washington, the first president of the United States, declared November 26 as a day of thanksgiving, but it still was not an official holiday. Thanksgiving Day continued to be celebrated in the United States on different days in different states – until Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, embarked on a campaign. For more than 30 years she wrote letters to the governors and presidents asking them to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.
Thanksgiving becomes a national holiday
In 1863, President Lincoln called on Americans to unite “with one heart and one voice” and to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day a week earlier to make the Christmas shopping season longer. However, because some states used the new date and others the old one, it was changed again just 2 years later. Now Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
The turkey tradition was pushed by Benjamin Franklin, who even wanted to make it the United States national symbol. In the end the bald eagle was selected instead of the wild turkey as the official national symbol. I think most Americans will agree it was the right choice. Finally, the turkey was made famous by Norman Rockwell’s 1943 image of the family Thanksgiving, Freedom of Want, that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The turkey has been the Thanksgiving Day favorite ever since.
Dinner and family
The American tradition of Thanksgiving revolves around an extravagant meal, with turkey at the center. Thanksgiving dinner also includes corn, cranberry, potatoes, gravy and a variety of pies for dessert – like pumpkin pie or apple pie. It’s tradition to say a special prayer of thanks before the meal. In many homes, family members each mention something they are very thankful for. Thanksgiving is a time for families to come together.
I have very fond memories of Thanksgivings in New England as a boy, especially of coming in out of the cold into a warm house heated by a wood-burning Franklin stove and savouring the aroma of an 18-pound turkey that’s been baking in the oven for five hours. Thanksgiving memories last a lifetime.