Thanksgiving: family holiday with an important history

EJ Hemingway, contributing writer

Thanksgiving tends to be viewed with eyes of love and excitement towards the reconnection or renewed family quality time. The turkey observed while sitting waiting for everyone to join the table looks delicious slathered in spices. Adrenaline rushes begin as the stomach screams at the view of potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, vegetables such as squash or brussel sprouts, and the multiple pies. A holiday for the stomach, and the feeling of joy towards the love and prayers shared within generations of the same bloodline.

Those who know the story behind this fascinating holiday, however, tend to overlook it, while others have never heard of it at all. 

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, occurring this year on Thursday, November 25th. The first viewed Thanksgiving celebration was when the Wampanoag and the Plymouth colonists shared an autumn harvest feast in 1621. These days of Thanksgiving were then celebrated every fourth Thursday of November by individual states and colonies for centuries. As the unofficial Thanksgiving continued for more than the next two hundred years, Abraham Lincoln finally decided to make it a national holiday in 1863. Ever since then, a feast has been held across the United States, and various other countries such as Canada, Grenada, and Liberia.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, which opened up the future of European exploration and colonization for the Americas. 

This man is famously known for the discovery of the Americas in 1492, “some even sing a song in which the most known line is ‘in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ to remember this man and his legacy” sophomore Hannah Gerardi states. 

Columbus, nevertheless, is only known for this identification due to his greater role in European migration and early lobbying by Italian Americans, while Leif Erikson undeniably arrived in the Americas before him. Erikson, less well known then Columbus, was an Icelandic Norse explorer who set foot on the American premises approximately half a millennium before Columbus who never even drew near the modern United States. The man given credit, however, practically invented slavery in the Americas, beginning with the natives of the area.

The natives because, remember, there  were already people in this land before any Europeans arrived. Thousands of Native Americans in distinct, large and complex, and advanced societies lived here long before Columbus or even Eriksen set foot in the so-called Americas—named after Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian colonizer. It is dishonest to report on the history of the Americas and Thanksgiving without recognizing the people who lived here peacefully until we arrived and slaughtered them.

 “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces,” Columbus wrote in his diary. “They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.”

In the Bahamas on his first voyage, Columbus enslaved a handful of these beings and brought them back with him to Spain. On the man’s second voyage, misogyny was brought into play and utter disgusting acts as he gave his men native women for a purpose of rape as a ‘reward’, while punishment was body dismemberment and war. This man serves as a symbol for America in thanks for all in which he quite nearly set up for failure. 

One’s who value this holiday’s history tend to speak plenty about the Pilgrims, but the word ‘Pilgrim’ wasn’t used until around 1800, and rather they were referred to as the ‘first-comers’ or the ‘forefathers’. These farmers in Northern England, also known as the Separatists, worshipped in secret due to the treasonous act. Their beliefs and danger in doing so ultimately resulted in their flee from London. Many, however, confuse these Pilgrims with the Puritans, who differed from their religious beliefs in thinking a church could be formed from within rather than the Pilgrim’s belief that the only way to live according to biblical precepts was to flee England’s Church entirely.

Due to Columbus’s discoveration of this land (really Leif Erikson, but nobody had known that at the time) the knowledge of America’s existence was used by the forefathers and Puritans to arrive in Massachusetts.

The Separatists fled first to the Netherlands rather than the Americas, but left later on due to a fear their children were losing their native culture. According to the first-comers, the only way to live a true English Christian life was to establish a colony in the New World. In September of 1620, a year before the first autumn harvest feast was held by the Wampanoags and Plymouth colonists, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England. The Mayflower was a small ship, which held 102 passengers, most of which devoted their choice of travel towards their religion and desperation towards religious freedom. This ship was initiated to travel to Northern Virginia, which, at the time, went as far north as the Hudson River in the state of modern New York. The Mayflower, however, approached Cape Cod to be safe from the rough seas, from their miscalculation of the river by just a few degrees. The passengers decided to explore the area, and 41 of the men created the Mayflower Compact, established to deal with voting, rule by the majority, and put forth constitutional law to agree on cooperation for the general good of the economy. 

The Puritan men arrived in 1630 in 17 different ships with a total of 1,000 passengers. They settled to later on swell up the bay with a ratio of around 20,000 puritans to 2,600 pilgrims, 10 years after arrival in Plymouth. The Puritans believed it possible to use their local churches without abandoning the larger Church of England while the first-comers did not. Money was not an issue for the Puritans, but rather as one of their reasons to explore and settle in America. They saw a favorable investment opportunity by owning land in the area.

‘Thanksgiving’ began as a prayer by the Puritans to thank the Lord for their successes in the New World, but the feast itself is tied to the Pilgrims’ arrival. The first ever Thanksgiving feast was held in celebration of their treaty of mutual protection, and marked as their first bountiful harvest. It was actually held sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, also unlikely to even be on a Thursday. After Lincoln decided to make it a holiday in 1863, Franklin Roosevelt moved the date up a week in 1939,  thus setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November for lengthening the Christmas shopping season. This holiday was never fully official until 1941, when Congress no longer required an annual presidential decree.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as a day of celebration and success is incomplete without looking at what the Pilgrims’ arrival in the “Americas” meant for those native to this land. What it meant was widespread death, by murder, disease, or loss of resources, and a loss of entire cultures. It means the compression of many tribes into one, and the reduction of the native population from, by some estimates, 112 million, to about 4.5 million, counting those in Alaska. Also known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day—solely known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Nantucket, as of last Spring (see: Native American Heritage)—this day is a day of mourning.

The history of Thanksgiving is one of many parts, and often is confused in different areas by individuals who share it. With the knowledge of such a fascinating holiday, one may converse amongst family members in the future years of the fourth Thursday of November, and finally have the ability to answer the questions everyone may be pondering. 

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