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When Was The First Thanksgiving?

Ah, Thanksgiving—aka an excuse to enjoy a bountiful feast of dishes including turkey, mashed potatoes, and pies with family and friends. Held on the fourth Thursday of November, the federal holiday typically involves reunions, football games on TV, and crazy retail sales in stores and online. If you’re curious about the roots of this quintessentially American holiday, here’s a little history lesson. The Myth of Thanksgiving Since the 1920s, American schoolchildren have been taught that the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful, celebratory meal shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans to toast the success of the fledgling English settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. It’s a lovely little vignette that many contemporary Americans regard as the basis of the holiday. While this happy myth of a multicultural dinner is rooted in a touch of truth, it doesn’t tell the whole—complicated—story of Thanksgiving. The Real History of Thanksgiving The Pilgrims, English Protestants who were members of a persecuted religious sect in England, arrived on the North American continent in 1620, and in 1621, those who did live through the first winter commemorated it. But what they considered “thanksgiving” was actually a religious day of fasting and prayer, and they would have most likely held this gathering in the spring. Come autumn, the Pilgrims celebrated again. Very little information exists about this “first” autumnal Thanksgiving, but according to nonprofit organization Plimoth Patuxet Museums, Edward Winslow—a Pilgrim who had sailed on the Mayflower and was living in Plymouth at the time—noted in a letter dated December 11, 1621, that a three-day festival was held to celebrate the harvest, and some 90 Wampanoag attended. These festivities, he wrote, were “more special manner [to] rejoice together,” as the Pilgrims were grateful for a bountiful harvest, courtesy of the Wampanoag tribe who taught them basic survival skills like farming and foraging. At the time, such harvest festivals were commonplace worldwide, across cultures, including in England and North America. A darker thanksgiving took place in 1637, when the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the safe return of men who’d massacred a Pequot village. For the next few centuries—and even into the contemporary day—colonists and Native Americans would share a conflict-ridden existence marred by massacres, enslavement, and population-decimating disease. How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday The first attempt at establishing a national Thanksgiving holiday happened in 1789 when President George Washington advocated for a public day of thanks to honor the end of the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Constitution. But Thanksgiving was only formally put on the calendar in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, at the behest of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who wanted to help the nation heal from the trauma of the Civil War through the holiday. In its early years, the holiday had absolutely nothing to do with the harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. That narrative was only introduced around the turn of the 20th century. As the number of immigrants entering the United States grew rapidly between 1890 and 1920, some Americans pushed for a strong national identity, one that author James W. Baker suggests was of colonial ideology in his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. Thus the wholesome story of a Pilgrim and Native American dinner party was born, promoting peaceful relations between cultures and a focus on religion—what Americans thought their country should stand for. It did not, however, acknowledge the tenuous relationship between colonists and Native Americans.

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