Here is the great value of studying the history of Thanksgiving, arguably America's most beloved holiday.Consider three of its features. First, Thanksgiving is a civil holiday—decreed by the state, not the church—that has traditionally served to promote a sense of American identity and national attachment. Second, more than any other civil holiday, Thanksgiving is one to which American Christians impute religious significance; whatever our non-Christian neighbors may think, we conceive of genuine thanksgiving as an intrinsically religious act. Third, and most important for our purposes, we typically remember Thanksgiving as rooted in a specific historical moment—namely, a celebration occurring nearly four hundred years ago on the shores of New England—and in that occurrence we claim to discern a critical, revealing episode in the founding of our country. So, more than with any other American holiday, we find in Thanksgiving the strands of national identity, religious heritage and historical memory, all inextricably interwoven.
This interrelationship is far from accidental. The truth is we like remembering the Pilgrims' celebration as the first of its kind. When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can't choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Without doubt, we have chosen the Pilgrims as our honorary ancestors, and we have done so, at least in part, because over time enough of us came to agree that the Pilgrims exemplified values we wished to affirm—even if we couldn't agree on what those values actually were. We can learn much by revisiting their seemingly familiar story, not only about the past but about ourselves as well. How we remember the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving reveals a great deal about how we understand both our religious heritage as Americans and our national heritage as Christians.