Unsurprisingly the most popular holiday in the United States is Christmas. For those keeping score at home, Halloween comes in a distant third, followed by the Fourth of July and Easter. Alone in second place is Thanksgiving, a holiday that often feels lost in the hustle and bustle of the Holiday Season.
Thanksgiving is one of America’s most enduring and beloved holidays, but it’s origins and history are far more tangled than most history books suggest. It’s easy to take the traditions of the Thanksgiving season for granted and simply assume that everything we’ve heard about the holiday over the years is correct, but where’s the fun in that? Here are some of my favorite myths about Thanksgiving and the day after.
Thanksgiving Has a Mom, And She Wasn’t a Pilgrim Without Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), we probably wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving today. It was due to her efforts that the holiday became an established tradition in all of the United States, reaching far beyond its origins in New England. Hale was a truly remarkable woman and doesn’t get near the credit she deserves. She had a tremendous impact on American life, and even wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb.
As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular monthly periodical in America up until the Civil War, Hale campaigned tirelessly for the adoption of Thanksgiving as a true national holiday. Godey’s provided her with a huge platform and she used it to popularize the holiday she loved so much. While she never saw the day recognized as an official federal holiday in her lifetime, it was eventually proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln and subsequent Presidents largely due to her influence (more on this below). Instead of Pilgrims, we should be decorating with pictures of Sarah Hale.
The First Thanksgiving Was Nothing Like The One We Learned About in School, And Wasn’t Even Celebrated For Several Centuries Most Americans think they have a pretty good handle on the first Thanksgiving. According to legend the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth Massachusetts in November of 1621 in honor of a successful harvest. This story also includes a friendly group of Native Americans who joined in the festivities. There’s some truth to that legendary first Thanksgiving but all we know about it comes from one letter written by Edward Winslow in December of that year:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That’s it, that’s all we know about the “first Thanksgiving” and to take things a bit further that particular celebration wasn’t even thought of as the first Thanksgiving until the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Winslow’s letter was lost for over 200 years and only upon its rediscovery did people start thinking of the events at Plymouth in 1621 at as the “first Thanksgiving.” Prior to the rediscovery of Winslow’s letter, Boston was seen as the home of the first Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale never wrote a word about the Pilgrims. In her magazine Godey’s Ladies Book Hale mentions Boston and not Plymouth when writing about the history of the holiday in 1870:
“To the Colony of Massachusetts belongs the honor of introducing this holiday, soon after the settlement of Boston, though the exact date is not known. From that Colony the observances of Thanksgiving became the custom in all New England, then advanced slowly but steadily to the Middle States and the West. This first Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania was held in the year 1843.”
Even though writers like Hale occasionally made references to a “first Thanksgiving,” the holiday did not originally commemorate any particular event in American history. It wasn’t the Puritan settlers that were important to early adopters of Thanksgiving, but the day its self. In fact, one historian couldn’t find any references to the Pilgrims in any colonial or state Thanksgiving proclamations from 1676 to 1840. That’s just how inconsequential Plymouth was though to be in early America.
The events of 1621 only became the “first Thanksgiving” centuries after their occurrence, and largely because America had begun to lionize the the Pilgrims and see them as part of a broader a national origin story. It became especially popular in public schools seeking to “Americanize” recent immigrants. In a lot of ways the story its self served as a piece of American-propaganda, an attempt to teach the values of hard work, tolerance, and religious freedom.
I’ll admit to the propaganda having an effect on me. I’ve always found the myth of the first Thanksgiving a positive one. It doesn’t necessarily speak to how things were back in 1621, but instead speaks to an ideal. Maybe we can all get along, at least for a day or two?
Interesting fact, all of those giant Pilgrim buckles on everything? Entirely fictitious. The overly pious Pilgrims thought of buckles as ostentatious.
Thanksgiving Was Not Always a Harvest Festival Many people think of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival and it’s easy to see why. The decorative motifs of Thanksgiving are all rather harvesty: pumpkins, fallen leaves, corn, even the colors associated with it are all rather muted and Autumn-like. However, Thanksgiving was not always a harvest festival, and some of its origins lie outside of the farmstead.
The Pilgrims of Massachusetts were Puritans, and Puritans tended to celebrate a thanksgiving only when circumstances warranted a celebration. With that in mind the first real official Thanksgiving on the record books took place in July of 1623 after a long period without rain that threatened to kill off all the Pilgrims’ crops. By the 1660’s most of the New England colonies in North America were celebrating an annual Thanksgiving in the late Fall, though sometimes Thanksgiving wouldn’t be proclaimed until December.
The first national Thanksgiving day also took place in December. In 1777 the Continental Congress of the fledging United States of America proclaimed December 18 a day of Thanksgiving to commemorate an American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Thanksgiving was proclaimed again in December of the following year, but was moved back to December 30, this time in honor of America’s newest ally, France. After the conclusion of the War for Independence the Continental Congress got out of the Thanksgiving business and left such celebrations to the states.
President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789 to celebrate the adoption of the US Constitution. Six years later he would proclaim another Thanksgiving holiday, this one on February 19. Abraham Lincoln is credited with turning Thanksgiving into something of a fixed holiday, but even then there were bumps on the road. His first Thanksgiving declaration celebrated the day on April 13, 1862. The next year he issued two Thanksgiving proclamations, one in August, and one (finally) on the last Thursday of November. This would become the standard for nearly 80 years, though President (Andrew) Johnson did once move Thanksgiving to the first Thursday in December.
For several centuries Thanksgiving was celebrated by Presidential or Gubernatorial proclamation and was not an official holiday. Governors and later Presidents were expected to proclaim the last Thursday of November a Thanksgiving holiday, but they weren’t actually obligated to do so. In 1939 then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, enraging his critics but lengthening the holiday shopping season. Two years later the holiday was officially moved to the fourth Thursday of November where it’s been ever since.
For several centuries New England Thanksgiving celebrations were more like Christmas than today’s Turkey Day. Because the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, they turned Thanksgiving into their de facto Winter Holiday. It was also the most popular holiday in that part of the country as a result. If Christmas hadn’t re-emerged in the 19th Century it’s possible that most of our Thanksgiving decorations would be a little less Autumn-like and a lot more wintry.
Black Friday I know a lot of you don’t participate in the madness of Black Friday, but there are 95 million Americans who do it every year. That’s a huge number and speaks to just how ingrained Black Friday shopping traditions are in our society. (Sadly 25 million Americans will shop on Thanksgiving day its self, which is just a step too far for me.)
The term Black Friday is generally thought to be an economic one; ledgers turn from red (deficit) to black (profit) at retail stores during the Holiday Season. It’s a scenario that makes a certain kind of sense, retail sales certainly surge during the Holidays, but it’s actually inaccurate. The term Black Friday was first used by the Philadelphia police department, and while it was referencing the day after Thanksgiving, cops called the day Black Friday because it was one of the worst days of the year for them. Heavy traffic, angry shoppers, and weekend football all combined to create a real headache for the officers in Philadelphia. The term became quite popular though, and in the 1970’s the “red to black” economic theory was tacked onto the phrase, and has been in use ever since.
So if you are one of those folks who curse the day after Thanksgiving for being far too commercial and chaotic, feel free to take the term Black Friday back from the Targets and Wal-Marts of the world. It was coined to reference a difficult day, and not to promote door-buster deals and insane lines of people at 2:00 AM.
“America’s Favorite Holidays” by Bruce David Forbes. University of California Press, 2015. Forbes quick chapter on Thanksgiving provides most of the detail anyone needs for a complete understanding of the holiday’s history. The bit beginning with “In fact, one historian couldn’t find any references” can be found on page 169 of Forbes’s book.
“Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History” by Diana Karter Appelbaum. Facts on File Publications, 1985. Appelbaum’s book is a longer telling of Thankgiving’s history, complete with a whole mess of illustrations. It’s sadly out of print, but still can be found rather inexpensively online.