Thanksgiving day is coming up soon so I decided to look up where the idea of Thanksgiving came from. Despite the fact that it is called “turkey day” by some—a custom that makes me rather sad, but we’ll get to that later—Thanksgiving did not originate as a way of ridding the world of its excess turkey population, or keeping turkey growers in business.
As a matter of fact, thanksgiving, or gratitude, has been celebrated by peoples all over the world, for as long as people have been around. The Jewish feast of Passover is a kind of thanksgiving festival, giving thanks for their rescue from captivity in Egypt. Harvest festivals in many cultures also often have an element of giving thanks for the good harvest. The American history of thanksgiving, however, is deeply rooted in the country’s Christian heritage.
History of Thanksgiving
The first recorded celebration of thanksgiving in America was in 1565. Yes, 1565, and it was celebrated in Florida. The Spanish explorers under Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés were grateful for having survived their long journey across the Atlantic Ocean and celebrated by having a Catholic Mass offered, and eating a meal, which they invited the curious natives to join them in. See more about all of this at this History channel.
While the Spanish (and some French explorers as well) beat the Pilgrims to the mark, the most famous early American celebration of Thanksgiving was in Plymouth in 1621. And it is this celebration which can be considered the foundation of the modern American holiday. Their Thanksgiving festival was a three day feast of eating, hunting and entertainment, and the main course of their meal was… you guessed it… Venison! (Okay, they might have eaten turkey too—the pilgrims did eat turkeys)But the main entree was five deer the local Native Americans shot for the pilgrims when they celebrated their first successful harvest with them. The Pilgrims never repeated this festival. (But shooting was still a popular part of the Thanksgiving festival when it was reintroduced.)
The next instance of a Thanksgiving Holiday in America, and the first time it was a national holiday, was in 1789. In response to a request from congress “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” George Washington wrote,
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be –That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks –for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation –for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war –for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed –for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.” Read the full text here.
In other words, “we Americans want to thank God for all the wonderful things that have happened to us as a country, and for the fact that we are a country.” He went on to ask that all Americans take this day to pray that God would forgive the country for any wrong it had done, and ask for his continued protection.
This celebration was also not repeated on a regular basis. Some presidents called for days of thanksgiving in November, others at other times, and some presidents called for days of fasting and prayer instead… So when did Thanksgiving as we know it today start?
Thanksgiving finally became a recurring national holiday in the 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln in response to a request to unify the Union celebration of the Thanksgiving (and possibly an attempt to rally support for the cause of union) wrote,
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
This proclamation, like everything Lincoln wrote, is a wonderful example of nineteenth century prose and propaganda, and also the expression of a profound and beautiful sentiment.
Later, in 1941, just a few days after the United States entered World War II, the fourth Thursday of November was declared the official day of Thanksgiving, as a political compromise between Democrats, who wanted Thanksgiving to be the second to last Thursday of November, and Republicans, who wanted it to be the last Thursday. Here too, the setting of the official day for Thanksgiving was an attempt by the government to unite Americans about to face a challenging war.
But why Do We Eat Turkeys on Thanksgiving?
But even here, Thanksgiving was still not necessarily “turkey day,” though it was a popular dish for the day, possibly because they were so often given as prizes at the shooting matches which were a traditional part of the New England Thanksgiving celebration. According to Mental Floss, Alexander Hamilton, who died in 1804, commented that, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
It is also theorized that turkey became the meat of choice for Thanksgiving, the specially American holiday, because turkeys are an especially American bird. They are so American that Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers, wanted to make the turkey the national bird, saying that it was a nobler bird than the Bald Eagle, which is also American, but has the shameful habit of being a scavenger. I guess he didn’t think that looks were important—he was known to be remarkably slovenly in his own appearance.
Regardless of how turkeys became the Thanksgiving favorite, they are not the most important part of Thanksgiving. No, they really aren’t. The most important thing about thanksgiving is….Mashed Potatoes! No really, mashed potatoes are awesome! If you don’t agree, try this recipe, from Pioneer Woman. It’s the best! (Spoiler alert: the secret ingredient is cream cheese.)
In all seriousness, though, the important thing about Thanksgiving is, well, giving thanks. (And that’s why I don’t think we should call it “turkey day.”)
Gratitude is one of the most overlooked virtues, which is tragic, considering its benefits for our own psychological health, as well as the health of our relationships.
Just thinking of three things to be grateful for each day is proven to be linked to lower levels of stress hormones, less depression, higher productivity, and other positive outcomes.
And if you’ve ever done something for someone, and your kindness was ignored, you know from experience how important gratitude is for your relationship. If you’re trying to maintain the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in your relationships (this is the recommended level) gratitude is a great place to start. Thanking your husband or child or friend for what they do right will make it easier for them to accept it when you tell them what they are doing wrong, as you are sure to want to do at some point.
So, this Thanksgiving, consider one of the following options, along with your turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and if you live in Minnesota, jello salad.
Try making a gratitude journal.
Write down three things you are grateful for each day. The observe as your attitude toward life and everything in it becomes more positive, and you become productive. A pretty blank book like this,
(Both Amazon links) would make a great choice for a gratitude journal. I personally find it much more fun to write on something pretty than on something blah.
Start a gratitude board for your household.
This could be as simple as a bulletin board with scraps of paper and a pen, or as fancy as a “gratitude tree” where you have leaves where people can write what they are thankful for, and then stick them on the tree. There’s some nice kits for this, or you can make your own.
Send a Thank You Card
Everyone likes to be thanked, and not everyone who you are grateful to can make it to Thanksgiving celebrations each year. Sending a thank you note to parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, or just random people who did something nice for you. Bringing back hte memory of the good thing they did for you will warm your heart as well as theirs. Click on the picture below to find some really classy thank you notes for any occasion.
Exchange thanks at Thanksgiving dinner
Everyone you have at your Thanksgiving dinner deserves to be thanked for something. Whether it’s the breadwinner for making the money with which dinner was bought, or the cook(s) for making the meal nice, or the guests for coming, your in-laws for raising such a nice son or daughter, or your child for sweeping the floor–everyone has done something that they could be thanked for. You can also have everyone say what they thank God for this year. This would make a wonderful family tradition.
Hopefully, if the focus is put back on gratitude, the stress many people associate with the holidays—will my relatives fight? Will I gain weight? Will the turkey come out right?–will dissipate, and you will be able to enjoy the holiday as it should be celebrated, as a time of peace, gratitude and fellowship.
Check out a whole bunch of other cool ideas, and share your ideas too at LindasLunacy right here.