Thanksgiving Day: A monument to a nation
Here’s to a holiday that helped rescue the U.S. from its own self-destruction
honor a country.
Thanksgiving was created to help rescue the U.S. from its own self-destruction. It did so by contributing to the creation of an American nation, and its continued and enthusiastic celebration is a measure of its success.
The Thanksgiving Myth
Many Americans will balk at the suggestion that Thanksgiving does not celebrate a specific event. In grade school, most young Americans are told the same story about what Thanksgiving commemorates. The story takes us back to 1621, the year after the Pilgrims made landfall in the New World. The Pilgrims had suffered terribly during their first winter.
When spring came, a Native American tribe taught the Old World immigrants how to plant crops such as corn that were suitable to the climate. After the first harvest, the Pilgrims invited the Natives to take part in a great feast with them in the spirit of peace and brotherhood.
It’s easy to see why this story appeals to Americans, who have always had to reconcile the pride they have for their country with the fact that its creation meant the displacement of others. And as it turns out, an event like the Pilgrim feast probably did occur; a man named Edward Winslow wrote an account of the feast in 1622. But whether the feast occurred is not the point. The point is that the feast was not the inspiration for Thanksgiving. The origin of the misconception was the work of a historian named Reverend Alexander Young, whose active imagination led him to assert without evidence in 1841 that the feast in 1621 was the first Thanksgiving.
If the holiday didn’t come from the Pilgrim myth, then where did it come from? The answer to this question has two parts, and both are important for understanding what Thanksgiving States today.
is and how
it continues to shape the United
From Local Custom to National Holiday
Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day that comes once a year. This has been true only since 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that fixed the date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. But it was Calvinist principles, which the first settlers of New England brought with them to the New World, that served as the origin of the Thanksgiving concept. Puritan theology recognised two kinds of days of worship that could be called spontaneously: Thanksgiving days and Fast days. Today it’s mostly a secular holiday, but Thanksgiving had its roots in religious observance.
Looking back through American history, we find numerous proclamations of Thanksgiving and Fast days. James Madison was the last U.S. president to declare such days until Abraham Lincoln, who played a vital role in the story half a century later. Madison declared three Fast days during the War of 1812 and a Thanksgiving Day to mark the war’s conclusion. Presidents John Adams and George Washington also declared such days, and both days could be (and were) declared from time to time by local communities and government officials.
Over time, as New England’s Puritan roots receded into history, Thanksgiving days transformed and spread throughout the country. (Fast days fell by the wayside.) They did not lose their overtly religious tone, but they became days of rest or celebration as opposed to days of constant worship.
But this only explains where the notion of a day of thanksgiving came from; it tells us little about the annual American holiday. The superficial answer is that it started in