Should Thanksgiving be celebrated?
- On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving to be a national holiday to occur on the fourth Thursday of every November. President Roosevelt moved the holiday in 1941 to the third Thursday of November following the end of the Great Depression.
- Writer of the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale, is remembered in history as “the mother of Thanksgiving,” as her years of lobbying the White House to make the holiday a national, annual event resulted in Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation. She urged citizens throughout the Civil War in the American Ladies Magazine to “‘put aside sectional feelings and local incidents’ and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving. And the holiday continued, despite hostilities, in both the Union and the Confederacy.”
- The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth between the Wampanoag tribe and pilgrims would have had food like deer, local seafood catches (like mussels, bass, lobster), and the first fruits of the pilgrim harvest, like pumpkin.
- Thomas Jefferson was the only founding father who refused to recognize a national day of thanks as he believed it crossed the “wall of separation between Church and State.”
- Though President John F. Kennedy was the first president to pardon a turkey’s life in 1963, the annual tradition of the White House “pardoning” a turkey officially began in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush.
The national US holiday, Thanksgiving, has the premise that it is a day of gratitude, family, and food. While this premise is essentially harmless, many valid criticisms still exist. Holiday activities in schools perpetuate harmful stereotypes of the Wampanoag Native Americans and the fabled idealism of the First Thanksgiving. In reality, relations between pilgrims and the Wampanoag deteriorated to the point of massacre in just 10 years. The term Thanksgiving was first used in celebration of this 'victory,' not in reference to the harvest celebration of 1621. Protestant descendants of pilgrims revised history in response to mass immigration during the Progressive Era. They sought to establish a national identity apart from a history of genocide.
Abraham Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. This was over 200 years after the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. He did this at the insistence of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She implored the president to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to heal the divided nation.
Thanksgiving, as it currently exists, does not represent all American citizens equally. Many Native Americans recognize it as a day of mourning. Native American observances of Thanksgiving include solemn vigils in acknowledgment of the atrocities that followed English settlers' arrival. One group of protesters has met near Plymouth Rock for such a vigil every year since the 1970s. Gratitude is celebrated across time and culture. However, we should consider divorcing our thankfulness for the things we have from our history of taking those things from others. Thanksgiving deserves a message everyone can be thankful for.
Thanksgiving commemorates a miracle of peace and survival, culminating in the feast the pilgrims of Plymouth had with the Wampanoag indigenous tribe in 1621, and is not a holiday meant to be all-encompassing about the American settling. Thanksgiving celebrates a specifically unifying and peaceful event when the pilgrims showed their gratitude to the indigenous people for saving their lives by teaching them to live in the shared land. Without Squanto and other Abenaki, Pawtuxet, and Wampanoag natives helping the pilgrims, they could not have survived.
History records relations between the Pilgrims and Native Americans lasted 'more than 50 years,' spanning the lifetimes of the Massasoit (the Wampanoag chief) and the original Plymouth Colony. This is the peace we celebrate on Thanksgiving as we gather with friends and family, being mutually grateful for each other and focusing on the blessings of friendship and peace, wherever we may find them.
Lincoln realized this and made the holiday federally recognized in 1863 during the bloody Civil War in a great effort toward unity. He agreed with Sarah Hale (the 'Mother of Thanksgiving') that Americans should 'put aside sectional feelings and local incidents' and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving.' Lincoln's hope was that it might help 'heal the wounds of the nation.'
Thanksgiving is a day to remember the positivity of this specific moment in history; it's not a day to discuss the turbulence that naturally occurred in future American settling. Even if some choose to celebrate Thanksgiving in light of all the freedoms and opportunities enshrined here, the holiday is still wholesome. It's a reminder that peace, though fragile, is attainable and worthy of celebration and remembrance.