Evolution of Thanksgiving
by Maleeya Mickelson
Modern day Thanksgiving has evolved significantly since the First Thanksgiving in 1621. From the history of the first feast to Thanksgiving football games and the restaurants families now celebrate in, Americans have put their own stamp on this beloved holiday.
The Story of Thanksgiving
What Americans have come to know as the “First Thanksgiving” is often an oversimplification of events that occurred in 1621 which led up to that feast. Colonists were able to enjoy their bountiful meal because of the Native Americans’ friendship, willingness to help, and experience with survival skills in what is now Massachusetts.
But these Native Americans were not the stereotypical “Indians” some may think of from portraits and cartoon images seen over the years. The Native Americans who took part in the first Thanksgiving were part of the Wampanoag tribe, which still exists today. The Wampanoag had inhabited the land and given thanks for their abundances long before the Europeans arrived. In fact, they did not wear feather headdresses like many images portray and should be acknowledged as an individual tribe with their own diverse cultures and traditions, rather than being lumped together with all tribes under the term “Indians”.
Stereotypical depiction of the “First Thanksgiving”
Before the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag negotiated a peace treaty with the colonists to come to each other’s aid. The Wampanoag needed the colonists with their weapons to help defend them against another enemy tribe. In return, the colonists required assistance in learning how to survive by planting native crops, learning to hunt and fish, as well as other ways to successfully live on their new land.
For centuries, the story of this day has only been told through a European’ perspective. Now, with the work of Native Peoples, historians, and educators, more people are learning further details about the story of the “First Thanksgiving”. This changes the way that Native Americans are perceived within history and today’s society by considering the Native Peoples’ rich traditions and cultural diversity.
Although Americans now know Thanksgiving to be on the 4th Thursday of November, the United States had to come a long way to settle on that date.
Surprisingly, the date of the first Thanksgiving was actually some time in mid-October 1621. It wasn’t until 1668 that the date of November 25th was decided on; however, that date only lasted for 5 years. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26th as a day of “sincere and humble thanks”.
Later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, the date was set to the last Thursday of November. The date stayed the same until 1941 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving to the 4th Thursday of November in order to give citizens more days for Christmas shopping to increase retail sales to help the economy right after the Great Depression.
While the majority of US holidays fall on a Monday or a specific calendar date, Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday. Although historians aren’t sure as to why Thanksgiving has been on a Thursday since George Washington first announced the holiday, they believe it had to do with religion. When deciding on the date for the holiday, Thursdays were further from the Sabbath day (Sunday) and since religious talks were usually held on Thursday afternoons, it may have worked better with scheduling.
As the holiday of Thanksgiving has spread nationwide, many new traditions have begun to sprout. Some of these include traveling, parades, and Thanksgiving football games.
Many Americans travel for Thanksgiving, whether it’s to visit family or to go on vacation. In fact, every Thanksgiving, about 4 million Americans are estimated to travel 50 or more miles for Thanksgiving. Research also shows that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has 37% of travelers departing, making it the single busiest day for travel in the year.
Parades like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City celebrate Thanksgiving every year. This annual parade started in 1924, originally to promote Christmas shopping at this large department store. The parade includes giant balloons of popular characters, various floats, marching bands and famous performers.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Ever since the first football game on Thanksgiving day occurred in 1876, Thanksgiving has been known for football. The game was the Intercollegiate Football Association championship with the football teams from Yale and Princeton playing. This Thanksgiving game and all the rest to follow were so successful that in 1893, the New York Herald declared Thanksgiving the official football holiday.
After the NFL was founded in 1920, games have been played on Thanksgiving almost every year. Teams like the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys played a big part in this as the Lions have hosted a game every year on Thanksgiving since 1934 (excluding WWII), while the Cowboys have hosted games most years since 1966.
Similar to football games today, the Pilgrims took part in vaulting, fencing and archery during their Thanksgiving festivities.
Time for the Feast
Although we now think of foods like pumpkin pie and turkey as a staple of Thanksgiving feasts, during the first Thanksgiving, neither of those were present. Foods eaten during the first Thanksgiving were native foods like geese, deer, and squash, which were later replaced with the classic foods many eat for Thanksgiving today like turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
Typical modern Thanksgiving dinner
Much of the evolution of Thanksgiving foods has occurred because of the diverse cultures here in the U.S. Instead of eating the stereotypical Thanksgiving dinner, some people eat different meals belonging to their culture, such as tamales, lasagna, and vegan dishes.
Along with the different types of food served, the way food was prepared has also evolved. For example, it has long been common for people to oven roast turkey though deep frying it is now gaining in popularity.
Until the last few decades, people may not even have considered having someone else cook their special Thanksgiving dinner, but today it’s quite common. Instead of serving home-cooked meals, people today may go out to a restaurant with family and friends or get food catered – maybe even order Door Dash. It’s also been common to hold Thanksgiving potlucks recently. With potlucks, each individual cooks less food, decreasing holiday stress; plus, having a potluck is a way for people to eat a more diverse meal. They might taste food brought by others that they wouldn’t have had normally for Thanksgiving.
Although celebrated in different ways, the overall idea of Thanksgiving has always been to come together with others and show gratitude. Over time, different parts of the Thanksgiving celebration have changed as people from new cultures have shared their food and traditions, commercialization of the holiday has occurred, and society has gained a better understanding of respecting the culture and diversity of Native Americans.