The Myths About Thanksgiving

Nov 22nd, 2009 | By Paul Smith | Edit

784px-The_First_Thanksgiving_Jean_Louis_Gerome_FerrisMy attempt to squash your romantic view of Thanksgiving!

Mayflower Myths:

The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition.  It doesn’t originate in any one event.  It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims.  All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.– James W. Baker Senior Historian at Plymouth Plantation.  But I have seen pictures of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down at a table eating together and having fun…Is this not what happened?  Pictures don’t lie.

 Myth: The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.

Fact: The first feast wasn’t repeated, so it wasn’t the beginning of a tradition. In fact, the colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast–dancing, singing secular songs, playing games–wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.  Wow… we have separation of Church and State already! 

thanks1The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.

Fact: The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. Unlike our modern holiday, it was three days long. The event was based on English harvest festivals, which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually the custom prevailed in New England of annually celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest.  Anyone fast anymore?

During the American Revolution a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated it with the November 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).  I am a vegetarian, so how about a holiday for me?

The First Proclamation :


General George Washington and his army, as instructed by the Continental Congress, stopped in bitter weather in the open fields on their way to Valley Forge. And, Washington, as the nation’s first President, declared November 26, 1789, as a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” A few months after his inauguration, Washington issued “Presidential Proclamation Number One”, his Thanksgiving as the first President. He voiced his personal conviction that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God.”  Just great… now we are putting God into the Holiday!

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939.  The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe.  On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak.  So when U.S. retailers begged him to move Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed. He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar throughout the country.  Crikey… from Halloween on its all about the money!

Modern Traditions:

The nineteenth century, however, was not devoted solely to determining the date of Thanksgiving.  It also saw the emergence of many of America’s now deeply revered Thanksgiving Day traditions. While the Western turkey hunt may have largely fallen out of favor, the more secular feel of the holiday, from sporting events to parades, developed over the course of the century and into the early twentieth century.

New York City “Fantasticals”were groups of cross-dressing young men parading merrily about the streets—often drunk and outwardly ridiculing authority, all while masquerading door-to-door for alms or treats (the tradition, now tied to Halloween in the United States, is still practiced in some European countries in connection with the St. Martin’s Day harvest festival, while Thanksgiving has also emerged as a time for charity). The Fantastical have been variously suggested to have their origins in an American-transplanted Guy Fawkes Day observation or a “celebration of the final evacuation of British troops from New York.”  Yeah I bet this was more you wanted to know!

In the 1910s, elements of that general merriment carried over, perhaps most directly into a bigger, more organized parade. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving became a “festival of the home,” a domestic occasion of the kind of which Sarah Hale would have been proud.  (Who is Sarah Hale?)  On the one hand, from the Progressive Era through the 1920s, American education focused the holiday on the home and community.  But as the old traditions moved into the home, so too did transforming aspects of technology and commercialization. So, on the other hand, the evolving traditions were not precisely as Hale had imagined.

BarneyThe modern-day Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (I grew up watching this!) is known for its colossal balloons, (Bart Simpson to name a few), astonishing floats, and marching bands. The first official parade was held in 1924, having been organized by a group of Macy’s employees who were mostly recent immigrants to the United States looking to re-create harvest festival celebrations of their home countries. In the first parade, employees dressed as clowns, giants, cowboys and cowgirls, knights in armor, and sheiks.  The Central Park Zoo provided live animals and floats and bands became a part of the tradition that first year, and the parade has gone on to be held every year except for three years during World War II .  Yet the department store also had an eye on Christmas and, early on, the connection was made explicit when “Macy’s at first called its November spectacle a Christmas parade.  Commercialization had touched Thanksgiving—and ever since, the following day has kicked off a fervor of holiday-inspired shopping.  (Not me! I use the Internet!)

DetroitBut it was the afternoon football game that most forcefully carved out its niche among Thanksgiving Day traditions. As Diana Appelbaum puts it, “The dinner hour, once set to coincide with the return of the faithful from morning church services, was now scheduled to avoid conflict with the football game.”  Football entered into the home in the 1920s with extensive radio broadcast, and for many families it became indispensable after-dinner ritual. Football games were televised by the 1950s, maintaining afternoon kickoffs so as not to conflict with the Macy’s parade.  And we get to watch the happless Detroit Lions this year!

onion_news3023And nothing could be complete without sparing a Turkey at the Whitehouse.  This year we get Obama to do the deed.  Does anybody watch this?  I think its time to put this tradition to bed folks.  You got to love our Secret Service guys with their “Men in Black” glasses saving our turkeys,  I would love to see the video!

So have a Happy Thanksgiving, forget about all the PETA protests that show you turkeys being clubbed to death, turkey hunts with guns, and all the poor starving children somewhere in the world.  If you have any family traditions you would like to share, please leave a comment.  This is Paul Smith bringing you the the Christmas Cheer… oops… Thanksgiving cheer!  The lay-away ads are running full steam already!

Visit my website and help me make the change to return Congress to the people. WWW.PaulSmithforCongress.org


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