How To Learn about the First Thanksgiving

Many Americans believe that our present national holiday called Thanksgiving originated with a feast celebrated by Pilgrims who arrived on the shores of America in 1620. The remnant that survived the Atlantic crossing and the first winter in the New World only survived due to help from a local Indian tribe. During the next spring the Indians taught them how grow and cultivate the indigenous crops that thrived here. In the fall of 1621 they simply celebrated a traditional English Autumn Harvest Festival that even predated Christianity. This autumn festival was carried forward in various forms from the pagan religions of Europe. This colonial, Puritan celebration has taken the credit for the first Thanksgiving even though there were other thanksgiving type celebrations in other parts of America that predate this famous celebration.

As time went on, Thanksgiving was celebrated erratically and irregularly through various governmental proclamations. Cities, counties and state governments continued their regional observance until 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg fought on July 4th, 1863 became a Union victory that represented the turning point of the American Civil War. In honor of this event, two national Thanksgivings were declared by President Lincoln. The first holiday commemorated the victory at Gettysburg on August 6th. The second event was celebrated on the last Thursday in November and became the permanent holiday with which we are familiar. Lincoln's proclamation was spurred by the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor of a popular women's magazine who started a national drive for Thanksgiving as early as 1827.

During the end of the 19th Century, Thanksgiving with its New England influence was commonly represented by turkeys, a large feast and large family reunions. The Pilgrims were not in evidence during these early celebrations nor was there a cozy relationship with the Indians. The Indian Wars were still raging with its attendant fear, prejudice and hatred. Depicting the Indians as benign helpers and living harmoniously with their Caucasian brothers would not have gained public acceptance.

The dawn of the 20th Century saw Thanksgiving evolve into its present form. Now that the Indians were docile and no longer a threat, pictures of Americans and Indians in their familiar congruent setting emerged and became popular. The 300th anniversary of the Pilgrim's landing in America in 1920 cemented the modern symbolism and meaning that we attribute to our present day celebrations.


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