Today is the fourth Thursday in the month of November. For most of the world, that doesn’t mean much. For our American readers, however, that means it’s Thanksgiving Day.
All countries have their national holidays. In the United States, July Fourth celebrates the Declaration of Independence, Memorial Day honors America’s fallen soldiers, President’s Day and Martin Luther King Day commemorate the lives of important men in the history of the republic. But Thanksgiving doesn’t celebrate a specific event or honor a person or group of people for service to their country. Thanksgiving was created to help rescue the U.S. from its own self-destruction. It did so by contributing to the creation of an American nation, and its continued and enthusiastic celebration is a measure of its success.
The Thanksgiving Myth
Many Americans will balk at the suggestion that Thanksgiving does not celebrate a specific event. In grade school, most young Americans are told the same story about what Thanksgiving commemorates. The story takes us back to 1621, the year after the Pilgrims made landfall in the New World. The Pilgrims had suffered terribly during their first winter. When spring came, a Native American tribe taught the Old World immigrants how to plant crops such as corn that were suitable to the climate. After the first harvest, the Pilgrims invited the Natives to take part in a great feast with them in the spirit of peace and brotherhood.
It’s easy to see why this story appeals to Americans, who have always had to reconcile the pride they have for their country with the fact that its creation meant the displacement of others. And as it turns out, an event like the Pilgrim feast probably did occur; a man named Edward Winslow wrote an account of the feast in 1622. But whether the feast occurred is not the point. The point is that the feast was not the inspiration for Thanksgiving. The origin of the misconception was the work of a historian named Reverend Alexander Young, whose active imagination led him to assert without evidence in 1841 that the feast in 1621 was the first Thanksgiving.
If the holiday didn’t come from the Pilgrim myth, then where did it come from? The answer to this question has two parts, and both are important for understanding what Thanksgiving is and how it continues to shape the United States today.
From Local Custom to National Holiday
Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day that comes once a year. This has been true only since 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that fixed the date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. But it was Calvinist principles, which the first settlers of New England brought with them to the New World, that served as the origin of the Thanksgiving concept. Puritan theology recognized two kinds of days of worship that could be called spontaneously: Thanksgiving days and Fast days. Today it’s mostly a secular holiday, but Thanksgiving had its roots in religious observance.
Looking back through American history, we find numerous proclamations of Thanksgiving and Fast days. James Madison was the last U.S. president to declare such days until Abraham Lincoln, who played a vital role in the story half a century later. Madison declared three Fast days during the War of 1812 and a Thanksgiving Day to mark the war’s conclusion. Presidents John Adams and George Washington also declared such days, and both days could be (and were) declared from time to time by local communities and government officials.
Over time, as New England’s Puritan roots receded into history, Thanksgiving days transformed and spread throughout the country. (Fast days fell by the wayside.) They did not lose their overtly religious tone, but they became days of rest or celebration as opposed to days of constant worship.
But this only explains where the notion of a day of thanksgiving came from; it tells us little about the annual American holiday. The superficial answer is that it started in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving in the Union. Lincoln was a brilliant man, but the idea of Thanksgiving itself was already prevalent throughout the country. By this point, it had become customary in many states in both the Union and the Confederacy to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving at the end of November. Many states in the Union and the Confederacy had already been celebrating a day of thanksgiving at the end of November for decades. The celebrations, however, were ad hoc and locally declared, though a growing chorus of advocates had been urging the U.S. government to declare a federal holiday for years. Lincoln took the fateful step. He could not have known at the time that the Thanksgiving he declared would take on the significance that it has. After all, previous Thanksgivings declared by American presidents had come and gone.
But Lincoln’s Thanksgiving fell during the middle of the Civil War, and that made all the difference. Lincoln’s declaration was profoundly religious, an exhortation to the American people to take stock of their blessings but also to atone for their sins. (In this way, he combined the Puritans’ Thanksgiving and Fast principles into one day.) More than anything, though, Lincoln hoped that the day of Thanksgiving that he declared would be “reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” If government of the people, by the people and for the people was to survive, a new people would have to emerge from the Civil War to rebuild what the war had destroyed. Lincoln saw an opportunity to take an event from the realm of local custom and elevate it to a national experience. This was far from the only thing Lincoln did to try to lay the groundwork for healing the wounds of the nation post-war, but it would turn out to be one of his most consequential and lasting contributions.
Strength in Shared Experience
It is easy to forget that the U.S. is a young country relative to others. There is no U.S. cultural artifact that speaks to the longevity of the American people – no Forbidden City, Palace of Versailles, Windsor Castle, Taj Mahal or Blue Mosque. Furthermore, the people who came to the New World and founded the United States displaced the original inhabitants and could not claim to have come from the land itself, as many other national ideologies do. Thanksgiving became America’s monument to the strength and unity of an American nation, of a people who shared not just the protections of the U.S. Constitution, but a cultural bond that transcended local bonds. Countries often build physical structures to mark their successes, but Thanksgiving is more potent because it enshrines the American nation not in steel or stone but in time. Every year, it creates a sense of what it means to be American for new generations, and every year, it molds itself as necessary to the issues of the day.
Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who in the 19th century lobbied tirelessly for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, wrote in an editorial in 1860 that “[Thanksgiving] contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality.” The nation Hale was writing about has come a long way since 1860 – and since 1776, and 1621. It’s come so far that it has forgotten how Thanksgiving started in the first place. That is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a testament to the holiday’s success and malleability.
Today, more than 300 million Americans are sharing the same experience, regardless of whether they are eating turkey, falling asleep watching NFL football or spending time with their families. There is tremendous power in shared experiences, and the American nation is a tremendous power. These things go hand in hand.