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A history of Thanksgiving

Was Thanksgiving created to celebrate the beginning of the ski season? Perhaps it was created to have two mid-week NFL football games on television. Then again, it may have come about as a means to kick off the Christmas shopping season.

But let’s start at the beginning. The story surrounding the events at Plymouth Plantation is true.But then there have always been Thanksgiv-ing stories of some kind or other for as long as there have been human beings. Thanksgiving has historically been a time when people come together to offer thanks for God’s bounty and the gift of fellowship.

Unfortunately, much of what we learned during childhood about the Pilgrims and the Indians is myth, and to partially understand this myth we must go back into history. Mainstream Englishmen considered the Pilgrims to be religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation completely independent from non-Puritan England.



They believed in the imminent occurrence of Armageddon in Europe and hoped to establish a “Kingdom of God” in the New World as foretold in the book of Revelation.

The Pilgrims actually came to America in many ships (not just the Mayflower) with the intention of taking the land away from its native people to build their prophesied “Holy Kingdom.”



By modern standards, many of these people were religious bigots. The Puritans and the Pilgrims saw themselves as the “Chosen Elect,” and they wanted to “purify” themselves and everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture.

To this end, they used any means available, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war and genocide – so much for the myth about the Pilgrims and how they welcomed their newfound friends, the Native Americans.

But let’s skip ahead to the late 1700s to see the first really positive spin to the Thanksgiving story. October 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the victory over the British at Saratoga, but this was a one-time affair.



George Washington later proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, even though many were opposed to it because many in the colonies felt that the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. Later, even President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until Sarah Hale, a magazine editor, orchestrated efforts to officially recognize Thanksgiving as a national holiday that Thanksgiving as we know it came to be. After a 40-year letter writing campaign, Sarah Hale’s obsession became a reality in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the 1890s and early 1900s, America was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of this 20th, this meant having a common national history.

This was the era of the “melting pot” theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.

That date was changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pushed it a week earlier to create a longer Christmas shopping season. But public uproar against his decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later.

Finally, in 1941, Congress sanctioned Thanksgiving as a legal national holiday to occur on the fourth Thursday every November.

Like all stories, truth and myth have become interwoven, but the true importance of today is that we come together with friends and family to celebrate a common holiday and thank the Lord for our many blessings.

Thanksgiving question: Did the Pilgrims really eat turkey on the first Thanksgiving?

Answer: Possibly, but it’s doubtful. More than likely venison was the main course that day. However, a story persists that then Gove. William Bradford sent four men “fowling” after wild ducks and geese to be served as the main course for the meal. And while there is no record that wild turkey was part of their feast, the term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl. The story and the tradition developed from there.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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