Just about every ancient people had an etiological creation myth explaining how their society came about and why it is special and favored by the gods. The ancient Greeks had a variety of them. In a lesser-known myth, contained in Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates explains how the goddess Athena had brought mankind forth from the land of Attica, which gave the Athenians a special nobility and closeness to the gods (237a-238b). The Romans traced their ancestry back to the noble Trojans through Aeneas, and also through Romulus and Remus. Israel traces its origin as the chosen people to the appearance of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt, guided by God. So after a brand new society was established in North America by people who had abandoned Europe, one could expect our own mythical account of America’s cultural and social origins to appear, and that’s what we got.
Thanksgiving commemorates in mythical, idealized terms the cultural conception of our nation eventually leading to its political birth in 1776. Other than July 4th, it is the only annual holiday that is uniquely our own and provides a sense of national communitas , and so holds a special place in the American psyche. It is our biggest holiday for travel, traditionally to the home of our family elders where each of us individually was conceived and nurtured.
We have reshaped this holiday over the centuries according to our self-perception, a mix of our higher ideals and our national shadow. In his most famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer showed how each generation of scholars portrayed Jesus in its own image. Thus, during the Enlightenment when human reason was most valued and being exercised, scholars focused on how Jesus could not have performed miracles, and naturalistic explanations were proposed for these biblical events. In progressive times when educated people had a strong social agenda, Jesus’s own social agenda and ethics were highlighted. More recently some scholars have even argued that he was gay – a sure sign of our changing times. The story is much the same with how Thanksgiving evolved, meaning that we too are engaged in mythmaking.
To understand the historical origins of Thanksgiving, we must look back across the Atlantic to the Puritans in England and Holland. They had revolted against the Catholic and Church of England’s many annual holidays, which they viewed as either pagan in nature or popish inventions. Instead, they developed the twin practices of holding days of fasting and of thanksgiving, always on weekdays rather than on Sundays, and officially declared by the community congregation. When something bad happened and people concluded that they had offended God, or when God’s help was particularly needed, the Puritans held a day of fasting, penitence, humiliation, and prayer. When good things happened, they would hold a day of thanksgiving to give thanks to God’s providence, which day started in church and ended with a communal meal indoors but without other festivities. These days were occasional in nature because the exercises of God’s providence could not be predicted, so there might be several such days each year, or none.
The Puritans, including the Pilgrims, brought this tradition to America. What became known as the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, however, was an entirely different kind of affair, and so at the time it was not even called a thanksgiving. Specifically: It was not officially declared, it did not have a particularly religious orientation, the invited guests (and majority of participants) were heathen (in the technical not pejorative sense), it was held over three days, the feast was outdoors, and it included recreations. Held probably at the end of September, it rather resembled the traditional annual secular harvest festival observed by non-Puritans in England. (Baker 6, 26; Love 69.)
The event itself seems to have happened more or less as we have traditionally understood it. Fortunately, we have a written eyewitness account, by the Pilgrim Edward Winslow, which is worth quoting:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. . . . At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation . . . . And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you [Englishmen] partakers of our plenty. We have found the Indians very faithful in their Covenant of Peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us. (Winslow, p. 61 (spelling modernized).)
Unfortunately, this information was in Winslow’s letter to people in England published in a short collection of Pilgrim writings in London known as Mourt’s Relation. Only a few copies were brought back to New England, and they soon disappeared. Fortunately, a copy was discovered in a Philadelphia library in 1820, but it was published in full only in 1841, in which edition an editor, Rev. Alexander Young, everlastingly termed the event the “first Thanksgiving,” without regard for what that term originally meant. In the more than two centuries after the event, there had been no published account of it, or even of the Pilgrims. The eyewitness account of another Pilgrim, Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, which did not actually describe this feast, was published only in the 1850s. This meant that for all that time the Thanksgiving holiday evolved in a tortuous fashion and without commemorating the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast. There being no solid historical accounts to rely upon to anchor the holiday, the holiday was ripe for mythmaking.
As the colonial population grew beyond the Puritan strongholds and became more diverse, fasts and thanksgivings did not die out but rather changed in character. People began to anticipate and aggregate providential events, and by the end of the 17th century a pattern emerged of regular fasts in the spring (when the fate of the crops was uncertain and God’s grace was sought) and thanksgivings in the autumn, which became more like traditional secular harvest festivals. The popular mind tended to believe that thanksgivings had always been customary, and in this form. The dates were proclaimed by individual colonies, and they differed.
The first national Thanksgiving day was proclaimed by George Washington in 1777, and it had both a religious and military flavor. It was held in December that year in thanks for the Colonial Army’s victory at Saratoga, which Washington (at least in the proclamation) attributed to God’s providence. The proclamation also implored God for further blessings, especially to inspire our military commanders with wisdom and fortitude, and also for economic prosperity; it also called upon the people for penitence and confession of sins, thus also reflecting fast day traditions. After another national Thanksgiving in 1789, although many individual states held thanksgiving days on various dates, no further national Thanksgivings were held until the close of the War of 1812: one in 1814 and two in 1815. All were similarly military in character, and were not associated with autumn. After that no national Thanksgiving day was proclaimed until the Civil War. Ironically, the first of these was proclaimed by the Confederacy for July 28, 1861, in thanks for its victory at Bull Run. President Lincoln later proclaimed one for April 13, 1863, in thanks for the Union’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, and at Shiloh. It was in 1863 that Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, which finally began our unbroken succession of national November Thanksgiving holidays, although that could not be foreseen at the time.
Although a regular national Thanksgiving holiday came late in our history, autumn thanksgivings on various dates had long been traditional on the state level. The meanings given to the holiday, however, evolved over time with the fashions and politics of the times. Thus:
- During the 19th century for so long as warfare with Native Americans in the West continued, early colonial thanksgivings were portrayed (see first illustration) as giving thanks in part for defeating this enemy (which purpose actually was sometimes expressly the case, as in a 1723 thanksgiving proclamation of Massachusetts). No sign of the “first Thanksgiving’s” camaraderie here!
- But late in the 19th century, in the era of reconstruction and national reconciliation and into the Progressive Era, when America had become a melting pot, the theme of national unity in diversity became prominent, and Thanksgiving became an occasion to celebrate our immigrant, African American, and Native American components (see second illustration).
- Thanksgiving, wherever celebrated, was consistently tied, if not to the Pilgrims themselves, to an idyllic vision of colonial New England. The American Revolution, our victory in it, and also the victory of the Union in the Civil War, were attributed to traditional Yankee values and fortitude, which Thanksgiving came to celebrate.
- Although thanksgivings originally were community (eventually nationally) oriented, by the end of the 19th century the national Thanksgivings had become family-oriented. The rapid change and instabilities in outer society caused people to focus more on the family and less on the larger community as a source of sustenance.
- As industrialization took over our national economy and work life, nostalgia for a lost agrarian past developed, and Thanksgiving became a locus for celebrating and vicariously experiencing that idyll. This is when the harvest theme along with autumn colors became a lasting element of the holiday.
- Nevertheless, Thanksgiving did not evolve primarily into a harvest festival. Rather, it became an occasion for an end-of-year summing up and thanks for the year’s blessings, of which the harvest was only one part. This explains the late November date. In those days well before climate change, the snows had usually come by then, and so Thanksgiving recreations included sleighing and skating. Jingle Bells was originally a Thanksgiving song!
All the elements of contemporary Thanksgiving were in place by the early 20th century, but they did not come together until after WWII. The patriotic sentiments that arose during that war to preserve the American way of life caused Americans to look to the Pilgrims as our national parents and as a source of the American values thought to have made victory possible, as the Pilgrims were perceived as the most pure and spiritual of the colonists. The “first” idyllic Thanksgiving, which had lurked on the fringe of public awareness for about a century, now rose in prominence and came to stand for the first time at the core of our concept of Thanksgiving, as a commemoration of our national origins.
The story of Thanksgiving could now serve as a myth of creation, with its turkey dinner as a national civil eucharist. It did not matter that through most of our history there was no such tradition. It is an example of what some anthropologists call the “invention of tradition.” (See Hobsbwawm and Ranger.) A holiday, by definition, is a “holy day” when one retreats from everyday life and profane time into sacred time and space (in this case the home of the elders of our families) in order to share a sacred experience with those to whom we feel close and share communitas. The most fundamental kind of holiday celebrates the creation, which inevitably is tied to the creation of one’s society. This is what Mircia Eliade called “The Myth of the Eternal Return,” through which each year a community of people holds a festival that takes them back to a mythical golden beginning, in illo tempore (Eliade 1991). And inevitably our vision of our own creation will mirror our mythical, ideal vision of our society at each point in time as it evolves.
Sources and Bibliography
Baker, James. 2009. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press.
Bradford, William. 1984. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Knopf.
Eliade, Mircea. 1991. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Ranger, Terence, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, United Kingdom: University of Cambridge Press.
Love, William. 1895. Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. Available on Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=u7c-AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
Santino, Jack. 1995. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 167-78.
Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Journall of the English Plantation at Plimoth. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966. This is a facsimile of the original of Mourt’s Relation containing Edward Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving, at p. 61 (cited as “Winslow”).
Copyright Arthur George 2015