Thanksgiving: Talking Turkey About An American Holiday

When and where was the first Thanksgiving? In the U.S. we are all familiar with the traditional story of Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sitting down together in 1621 for the first Thanksgiving Feast. This did happen, more or less, and it is geographically a strong contender for the "first Thanksgiving" if we consider "America" a continent and not a single nation.

But, was this the first "Thanksgiving" involving Europeans and Natives? Nope. Another contender and date includes 1565 when the Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Avile invited the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida. 

Or, it might have been Dec. 4th, 1619 when some British settlers landed on the banks of Virginia's James River and hosted a Thanksgiving feast to mark their successful crossing. 

In 1623, back in New England, there was a second Thanksgiving feast, marking the end of a long drought. Of course, depending on how you count, it could have been the fourth. 

All this ignores the traditions of giving thanks at harvest time that predate all of these. The Native Americans already had a rich history of commemorating the fall harvest going back to prehistoric times while in Europe, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Jews also all had festivals. 

Whatever came before, the first Thanksgiving the U.S.A. celebrated as a nation didn't happen until 1789 when George Washington called upon his new country to celebrate the end of the War of Independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. 

Even so, the habit didn't quite take, though Presidents John Adam and James Madison also designated Days of Thanksgiving. No further Thanksgiving declarations were issued from the White House for half a century.

It wasn't until 1827 that Sarah Josepha Hale (author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb") launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Thirty-six years later (1863), at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called upon all Americans to remember, "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

In 1939, there was a brief attempt by Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving (and its associated retail sales) up by a week during the Great Depression. Opposition was fierce with people derisively calling the proposed day "Franksgiving." In 1941, the President moved the day back to the fourth Thursday in November where it has remained.

If this arduous history lesson teaches us anything, it is that Thanksgiving is both traditional and modern; newly created and culturally established. While our Canadian cousins to the north celebrate a "quieter" version in early October, what is now known internationally as American Thanksgiving (the French call it American Christmas but that's another story) is —like most of our holidays—a distinctly modern invention.

Thanksgiving at its best is a state of mind where we gather to be grateful. It gives us a chance to not only gorge on food but to cultivate an "attitude of gratitude" which imparts benefits in our relationships, our sleep, our self esteem, and a host of other aspects of life.

So, fellow AtmosFans, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

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