Thinking about the historical Thanksgiving

Published 2:55 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A good many of us will gather over a bird of some fashion or a ham, give thanks, dig in and nap while watching football on the television.

It’s Thanksgiving. A time traditionally when we give thanks for what we have. We generally share what we have with others who might not have so much. It’s a time of preparing for Christmas.

But the History News Network has provided some historical background to this holiday we call Thanksgiving.

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First of all, forget the story about the Pilgrims and the Indians as the first Thanksgiving celebration. Several areas in the nation claim the same thing. For example, Texas claims the first Thanksgiving almost a quarter century before the Pilgrim episode. Juan de Onate led a group of settlers across the Mexican wastelands— about 350 miles — to a place near El Paso. After the trip, they celebrated. This occurred in the 1500s. Or, you can use the tale about the first Thanksgiving on the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619, two years before the Pilgrims. The company in London that provided the settlers had them offer a day of thanksgiving on the day the ship landed in Virginia. The Virginia thanksgiving is not really a popular story, even in that state, but in 1963 President John F. Kennedy made it official.

Most people, especially here in the Bible Belt, believe Thanksgiving is about religion and family. Historians look askance at that. The Pilgrims’ version of Thanksgiving was not family, but a multicultural community event. If it had been about family, the Indians wouldn’t have gotten an invitation. The same thing goes for religion. There were plenty of “thanksgiving days” in the Pilgrims’ religious calendar, but the day we recognize as the great feast with the Indians was a harvest celebration.

Historians also tell us the Indians and Pilgrims ate deer that day. That’s the only confirmed food. The turkey, dressing and cranberries came later in the 1800s as part of the celebration. Indeed, we didn’t celebrate the Pilgrims until the late 19th century. Up until that time, Thanksgiving was just that — a day to give thanks.

Now that you know the rest of the story, grab a plate, eat your meal and laze on the couch. Give thanks for having a day to celebrate a day for giving thanks.