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The Thanksgiving Story

The holiday season is fast approaching; stores are stocked with gifts, markets are displaying “traditional” holiday foods and many people have made travel plans to celebrate with family living in other locales. With Halloween behind us our thoughts turn to Thanksgiving dinners. Who will host? What foods will be prepared? How will we manage to fit the entire family around the “traditional” Thanksgiving table? This holiday in particular seems all wrapped up in traditions.

Thanksgiving conjures up images of turkey, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and football games. The Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving has family and friends gathered in a peaceful setting, table spread with the family’s best china and dad carving the picture-perfect turkey. An abundance of dishes fill the table – mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, yams and much, much more. Smiling faces are everywhere. Does this idealized Thanksgiving exist? Did it ever exist? Do you know how our treasured holiday with all its “traditions” began?

The year 1621 was an extremely difficult one. The newly-arrived colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts managed, just barely, to survive a year filled with sickness and scarcity. Their perseverance and hard work paid off, however, with a bountiful corn harvest and in November they invited natives of the Wampanoag tribe to join them in a celebratory feast, a joyous outpouring of gratitude. During the first years of European settlement in America, the native populations were helpful in showing colonists what foods to grow and what to forage. They were important to early survival. It was only fitting that these colonists invited the Wampanoag tribe to join them in celebration.

Not all historians agree that this 1621 feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts was the first Thanksgiving. It is not unusual for historians to disagree, to interpret primary source documents differently. Although the Plymouth feast is the most popular choice for the first Thanksgiving, some historians argue for a 1565 dinner with Spanish explorers and natives in St. Augustine, Florida and still others suggest a similar meal in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.

Few facts are known about the three-day festival in Plymouth in 1621 and the menu is unclear. Corn seems an obvious choice due to its abundance that year, but we can only guess at the rest. Massachusetts Governor William Bradford’s journal states he sent four men on a “fowling” mission as they prepared for the feast. We do not know what they returned with but perhaps they did eat turkey that day. There is documentation showing that Wampanoag natives were invited to join in the colonists’ 1621 celebration. Did they use the word Thanksgiving? If they did it was in a purely religious context, not in response to a national holiday. The Massachusetts colonists had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean seeking religious freedom and religion was fundamental to every aspect of their lives. In its early years the Massachusetts colony was a theocracy.

The history of America’s Thanksgiving is a tale of gratefulness but its adoption as a national holiday is framed in adversity – wars and depression. The motivation for English colonists in Plymouth to hold their second feast two years later was the end of a drought. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving. It was a somber event though, as it specifically recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.” In 1777, there may have been turkey but evidently no football.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation calling for a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the successful conclusion of the war for independence and ratification of the Constitution. Several succeeding presidents continued this tradition but within a decade it fell out of use. In 1817, New York became the first state to adopt Thanksgiving as an annual celebration. Not all states followed and there was no consistency in the dates of observation.

Our modern celebration began in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. In an effort to unite a war-torn country, President Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings, one on August 6 celebrating the Union victory at Gettysburg and a second on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln urged all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife … and heal the wounds of the nation.” The November date remained the same until 1939, although neither Lincoln nor his successors made it a permanent national event.

Economic strife during the Great Depression motivated President Franklin Roosevelt to shift the holiday a week earlier to expand the Christmas shopping season. This attempt to stimulate the economy was unpopular though and critics called it “Franksgiving.” In response to the criticism, FDR moved the holiday back. In 1941, two years after moving the date forward, he signed a bill to permanently establish the fourth Thursday in November as our official national holiday.

Children are taught in school a Thanksgiving story of natives and Pilgrims celebrating peacefully together. While that may be true for 1621, peaceful coexistence was short lived. Children learn the “happy” version, not the “darker” story of later conflicts between colonists and native people. In 1637 the massacre of the local Pequot tribe at Mystic River in Massachusetts, by some of the same colonists, set in motion centuries of conflict with America’s native population. And the Pilgrims, those colonists so common in today’s story, did not appear in Thanksgiving stories until the 1870s.

Today’s San Marino residents celebrate with turkey and pumpkin pie, a tradition brought from the East by some of our first families, such as the Wilson, Patton and Huntington families. For centuries before Euro-American colonization, however, native peoples in the San Gabriel Valley celebrated acorn harvests every fall. The acorn was a dietary staple and their culture required giving thanks. Fall harvest festivals were common among indigenous populations throughout the Americas. It is quite likely the Plymouth colonists witnessed Wampanoag harvest festivals in Massachusetts and were influenced to express their gratitude for survival with a celebratory feast of their own.

California’s first official Thanksgiving was an elaborate affair in Sacramento on the evening of Nov. 30, 1850. Governor Burnett issued a proclamation a few days earlier and a group named the Sons of New England held a banquet at the Columbia Hotel. They invited everyone. The decorations were patriotic and the extensive menu included 40 different dishes and eight varieties of wine.

As an annual celebration of harvest and its bounty, Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that span cultures, continents and millennia. Whether your Thanksgiving this year expresses such grandeur or includes simpler fare, whether you have turkey and pumpkin pie or foods of another culture, whether you watch (or play) football or opt for quiet family conversation I hope your Thanksgiving is a happy and memorable one.


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