Thanksgiving: A Holiday with History
Thanksgiving is a holiday that has changed a great deal over the course of American history. Its origins are wrapped up in the colonial founding story of our country: that of English Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the “First Thanksgiving.” The reality, however, is more complicated. Tracing the history of November’s big holiday backward through time reveals not only the way that it settled into its role in American life, but also just how far back it goes, and how deeply it is tied to the complex and at times dark history of early America.
Thanksgiving as it is celebrated by most Americans today is more or less a traditional “feast” holiday with a focus on family. The most basic description of a Thanksgiving celebration is gathering together with family for a large meal to give thanks for good fortune experienced each year. This is probably familiar to most Americans, but many aspects of the holiday are relatively modern developments.
For one thing, Thanksgiving has become much more secularized than it used to be. The holiday began as an explicitly Protestant tradition with roots all the way back in Europe. Days of Thanksgiving were called to give thanks to God for fortuitous events. Now, while religion certainly plays a role in many families’ Thanksgiving dinners, the holiday is celebrated by people of a variety of faiths and none. Thanksgiving parades and celebrations tend to feature turkeys more prominently than they feature sermons.
The date itself was also established more recently than you might expect, in 1941. Prior to this, there had been some disagreement. Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November in 1863, and this became the traditional date of Thanksgiving until 1939. That year, during the Great Depression, there were five Thursdays in November, instead of the usual four, placing Thanksgiving on the last possible day of November. This worried some business leaders, as the unusually short gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas might mean less Christmas shopping and thus less economic activity.
In response to these worries, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose to move Thanksgiving a week earlier, to the second-to-last Thursday of November, in 1939, 1940, and 1941. Americans were split on whether or not to accept this change. Many states accepted the new date, while many continued to use the traditional one, labeling the new date as “Franksgiving”—after the president—and even calling it dictatorial use of Presidential powers. This division also went down party lines, with Democrats, Roosevelt’s party, being more likely to support it than Republicans. Missouri, which was a Democratic stronghold at the time, accepted the new date.
Eventually, Roosevelt and Congress reached a compromise, which stated that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November. This is typically the last Thursday, but in edge cases like 1939, it’s the second-to-last, like Roosevelt wanted, to protect Christmas shopping. This compromise is still in place to this day, and it shows how Christmas became an increasingly important part of Thanksgiving in the 1900s, giving rise to Black Friday as an advertising phenomenon.
Part of the reason why the date of Thanksgiving was (and is) so important for the economy is because of the tradition of companies and department stores (who traditionally sponsored Thanksgiving parades) to avoid Christmas advertising and shopping sales until after Thanksgiving. It was this unspoken tradition that led to the development of Black Friday, when all of those sales would start. Over time, this commercial holiday has become increasingly prominent and even begun to creep forward in time into Thanksgiving day itself.
As we continue to go back in time, however, before Roosevelt and even before Lincoln, the complexities of the Thanksgiving holiday’s history begin to emerge. For one, its roots as an explicitly Protestant holiday become clear. Lincoln’s formative 1863 Thanksgiving was held not only to celebrate victories in the Civil War, but also to repent for the nation’s sins. This is typical of earlier Days of Thanksgiving, going all the way back to Europe. It may surprise you to hear, but the first Thanksgiving was not held in North America, but is instead a tradition carried over from the colonists’ homelands in northwestern Europe.
There is still some debate as to where the first Thanksgiving in North America took place, but it almost certainly wasn’t the one you likely think of, taking place in Plymouth between Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans. That Thanksgiving did happen, but others were held earlier. After a good harvest in 1621, the colonists shared a feast with the Wampanoags, who were their allies and had helped them through a harsh winter. It’s where the Wampanoags enter the picture, however, that the complexities begin to emerge.
While the Plymouth Thanksgiving is popularly (and incorrectly) considered the “First Thanksgiving,” it was only one of many held in colonial America. Local political and religious leaders would call for Days of Thanksgiving after fortuitous events such as good harvests and military victories. It must be remembered that most of these “military victories” were the conquest and destruction of indigenous tribes. While some of these conflicts were traditional military conflicts in which both sides combatted the other, many of them were not. The Wampanoags, for their part, after being devastated by European diseases, were then destroyed for resisting colonial expansion and slaughtered or sold into slavery.
It is for this reason that many Native American groups and their allies criticize Thanksgiving as a holiday. The popular narrative around the history of the holiday is that of colonists and natives cooperating in harmony, when in reality the relationship for most of the country’s history has been that of colonizer and colonized. That, combined with the fact that many colonial-era Thanksgivings celebrated victories of settlers over Native Americans, means it has a somewhat controversial legacy. Many Americans see the holiday as reflecting a colonialist worldview and whitewashing the history of colonization.
The controversy is a good example of how holidays acquire and discard meaning as cultures evolve. Thanksgiving is a Protestant tradition that predates the colonization of North America, but it has evolved into an often-secular holiday that carries with it the legacy of colonialism and the narratives surrounding America’s origins. What Thanksgiving means to you, whether it’s a religious holiday or not, whether it is about America’s founding, the genocide of Native Americans, or neither, and whether you celebrate it with family or friends, likely depends on you and your own experiences.
Thanksgiving as a holiday has changed completely in the hundreds of years it’s been celebrated. The date has changed from being irregular and called for on special occasions to being an annual holiday with a compromise date emerging from the Depression. It has gone from a deeply religious holiday to one celebrated by most Americans regardless of faith, it has become a starting line for the Christmas season, and it has come under scrutiny for its associations with settler colonialism since as early as the turn of the 20th century.
The Thanksgiving of the future may or may not be on the same day that it is now, may or may not be celebrated in the same way that we celebrate it today, and it may have completely different meanings as our understanding and attitudes toward our country’s history continue to change and grow. Whatever the case, cultural historians will have something to write about, and the holiday’s story will continue to evolve as we do. Until then, we at the History Museum on the Square wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.
Written by Catherine Kearbey, 2022.
Photo by the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Springfield, Missouri.
Baker, James A. Thanksgiving: the Biography of an American Holiday. UPNE, 2009.
Prokop, Andrew. “When FDR Moved Thanksgiving: The Presidential Power Grab that Tore a Nation Apart.” Vox, 2016.
“Thanksgiving Day Gets Early Start.” The New York Times, November 22nd, 1939.
Weiss, Jana. “The National Day of Mourning: Thanksgiving, Civil Religion, and Native Americans.” Amerikastudien, 2018.