By Stephanie A, Master Tutor
Two of the most famous presidents in American history are credited with making
the last Thursday in November a national holiday we now know as Thanksgiving.
George Washington, the country’s first president, declared a “day of
thanksgiving and prayer” which was held on November 26, 1789, but the
celebration only occasionally was marked during the next seventy-four years. Not
until the middle of one of the most traumatic periods of United States history, the
Civil War, did President Abraham Lincoln declare Thanksgiving a federal holiday.
For many Americans, feeling thankful during this period was difficult as so many
were grieving the loss of loved ones who were fighting in the war, but Lincoln’s
decision proved to be an important one that ultimately reminded the divided
nation of the many things Americans had to be grateful for.
Historians mark 1621 as the year of the first Thanksgiving in what would become
the United States. Although the early settlers, the pilgrims, had always had days
of prayer and Thanksgiving as part of their religious practice, ten months after
these travelers landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when only seven houses
had been built, they broke bread with members of the Wampanoag tribe who had
been vital to their survival. As the pilgrims struggled with the rugged terrain and
climate of New England, their native American friends introduced them to how
plentiful their new homeland was. The feast these two peoples shared lasted
over a week and included duck, corn, and deer meat, or venison, as well as
seafood, squash and cabbage. There was no turkey at that first Thanksgiving
and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce had not yet been invented. Children
played games like Blind Man’s Bluff while the grownups held target-shooting
Today, the original meaning of Thanksgiving can sometimes get lost. For lots of
Americans, Thanksgiving means the beginning of the holiday shopping season,
with the Friday after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday, when retailers hope to
make huge profits. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1941, encouraged
shoppers to support National Retail Dry Goods by moving Thanksgiving to the
third Thursday of the month instead of the fourth to lengthen the holiday
shopping season. After some confusion and complaints that the real meaning of Thanksgiving was being lost if Americans were more interested in shopping than giving thanks, the holiday was moved back to the last Thursday in November where it has remained. Thanksgiving has survived for centuries for good reasons.
For one thing, because it no longer is closely identified with any particular religion, it is a holiday
that can be celebrated by all Americans. It is also associated with homecoming.
Families gather for this holiday, including newly-minted college freshmen who
may be traveling home for the first time since they left for college. No doubt, the
prospect of eating good food is also a feature that helps Thanksgiving endure.
However, the biggest reason why this holiday remains so popular can be found in
its name. In our busy world, which can often be complicated and sometimes difficult, it’s good that a day is devoted to expressing gratitude, to giving thanks.
Being reminded of how fortunate we are is good for us and can serve as a reminder to help those who may not be as lucky as we are.