“Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors." — Abraham Lincoln
Of all the holidays we celebrate in the United States Thanksgiving is my favorite. It is a holiday when we gather with family give thanks for our blessings and unite with family. It marks the end of the harvest season when the crops are in and the farmers can take stock of the year and begin planning for next year’s plantings.
Thanksgiving Day is a holiday celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada. Thanksgiving is celebrated each year on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States.
Thanksgiving in North America had originated from a mix of European and Native traditions. Typically in Europe, festivals were held before and after the harvest cycles to give thanks for a good harvest, and to rejoice together after much hard work with the rest of the community. At the time, Native Americans had also celebrated the end of a harvest season. When Europeans first arrived to the Americas, they brought with them their own harvest festival traditions from Europe, celebrating their safe voyage, peace and good harvest. Though the origins of the holiday in both Canada and the United States are similar, Americans do not typically celebrate the contributions made in Newfoundland, while Canadians do not celebrate the contributions made in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
n the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition traces its origins to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. There is also evidence for an earlier harvest celebration on the continent by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598, as well as thanksgiving feasts in the Virginia Colony. The initial thanksgiving observance at Virginia in 1619 was prompted by the colonists' leaders on the anniversary of the settlement. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. In later years, the tradition was continued by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford who planned a thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. While initially, the Plymouth colony did not have enough food to feed half of the 102 colonists, the Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival like this did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. The dates of Thanksgiving in the era of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln had been decided by each state on various dates. The first Thanksgiving celebrated on the same date by all states was in 1863 by presidential proclamation. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date of Thanksgiving in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 20th century. And so, in an effort by President Abraham Lincoln (influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale who wrote letters to politians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday), to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states, proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November.
It was not until December 26, 1941, that the unified date changed to the fourth Thursday (and not always final) in November -this time by federal legislation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after two years earlier offering his own proclamation to move the date earlier, with the reason of giving the country an economic boost, agreed to sign a bill into law with Congress, making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth (not final) Thursday in November.
I can still remember, as a child, growing up in World War II, the family thanksgiving celebrations we had. The entire family would gather at either our home or the home of one of my aunts and uncles to have a big thanksgiving feast There would be turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, rutabagas, green beans, cranberry sauce, and homemade mince or pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Sometimes a small ham would be added as my father did not care for turkey.
We would all gather around a big table, usually made from combining two tables, and sit for the feast. Afterwards the women would clear the table and the men would gather in the living room to discuss world events.
As a youngster in elementary school we would have pageants depicting the first Thanksgiving where we would dress as pilgrims and Indians with paper hats and whatever clothes we could muster that would make us look like pilgrims. Some of the boys and girls would paint their faces to resemble Indian and carry a toy bow with those arrows with suction cups on their tips.
The teacher would read us the story of the first Thanksgiving and the entire class would sing the famous Lydia Maria Child song “Over the River.” I still can recall the first verse:
“Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.”
It was a grand time for the entire class.
I recall one Thanksgiving in 1950 when it began snowing late in he afternoon. The dinner as at our house and my uncles left early for fear of bad driving conditions. The next morning we awoke to about 15 inches of snow on the ground and it was still snowing. By Saturday we had well over two feet of snow blocking our street. It was a fortunate thing we had plenty of leftovers as we were nor able to get to the stores until Monday or Tuesday of the next week.
As TV became available we would watch the traditional Thanksgiving professional football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. We would also watch the Macy’s Christmas Parade on our little 10” black and white TV set.
Over the years the football games have changed a bit with the addition of the Dallas Cowboys and the Macy’s Parade has turned into a commercial loaded celebrity event that doesn’t interest me any longer.
The stores would begin to be decorated for Christmas after Thanksgiving. Now they are decorated at Halloween. We never put lights on the exterior of our house until 1960, and the lights we had were pretty basic and of the type were when one build burned out the entire string would go dark.
Thanksgiving, unlike Christmas, is a holiday every American can celebrate. It is a holiday about giving thanks for our blessings from God and the gathering of the family. It is not political or religious beyond the sense of giving thanks to God.
In many ways Thanksgiving has been turned into a holiday of travel and shopping today. We have commercials touting “Black Friday” the day after Thanksgiving when the stores open at 12:01 am and people crowd in to buy the latest fad toy or something on sale. The Macy’s Parade, as I mentioned, is nothing but one giant commercial with celebrities touting their latest TV show and cutaways to professional singers and dancers. Only the football games have stayed the same. This year it will be Green Bay at Detroit and Miami at Dallas.
With all of the changes and commercialization Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. In many homes across the land it is a holiday centered on family and giving thanks. It is also a holiday where the next day you can enjoy the delicious left overs and celebrate all over again by hanging your outdoor lights