At this point, most of us know that the story of Thanksgiving that we’re taught in grade school isn’t exactly accurate. Pilgrims and Native Americans probably didn’t share a turkey across a picnic table and because European supplies were all but exhausted by the time the festival began (a festival in which few Pilgrims would likely have been caught giving thanks) there wasn’t any pie or other kinds of dessert. We know that they ate five deer and that many of the dishes were prepared using native spices and in traditional native ways; but beyond that, we don’t know much about what was on the menu back in 1621.
The Thanksgiving tradition persisted over the years. In 1789, George Washington issued the first ever Thanksgiving holiday proclamation from an American government, in which he asked the citizens of our nation to be thankful for the resolution of the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. During their presidencies, John Adams and James Madison both called for days of thanksgiving as well, though each didn’t fall on the same date.
Eventually, states would come to adopt the idea of designating a holiday for giving thanks, though each celebrated it slightly differently. Then in 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale started a campaign to launch a nationwide day of thanks. Hale was a prominent woman who had gained notoriety as an author; among the works credited to her is the famous poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She was also no pushover.
For thirty-six long years, Sarah Jospeha Hale continued a letter writing campaign to governors, senators, presidents and any other politician she thought might be able to aid in her quest to launch the holiday of Thanksgiving. She wrote editorials and spoke publicly about the holiday she believed would benefit her nation. Finally, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln heeded her request.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln addressed the warring nation with his wishes regarding the new holiday. He asked that the nation “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Henceforth, Lincoln proclaimed, America would give thanks for all we have been blessed with on the final Thursday of November.
Seventy-six years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt made another change to what Americans call Thanksgiving when he moved it back a week to encourage early Christmas shopping. His plan hoped to stimulate the depression era economy. The change was poorly received and two short years later the day was moved back to the fourth Thursday of the month.
These milestones certainly don’t reflect the breadth of the holiday’s history, nor do they pay homage to the people that died in the events surrounding these interactions. If one seeks to tie the holiday to bloodshed, look no further than the Native Americans who lost their lives to war or disease throughout the settlement of our nation; the American colonists who died in the fight to win independence from the British; the Union and Confederate soldiers who died on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line for their country; or the starving Americans that saw the holiday shift back a week during the depression.
The point of Thanksgiving isn’t to look down on those who came before us for the mistakes of their generation — nor is it to pass judgement for their transgressions as many do on holidays like Columbus Day. Thanksgiving, as we know it, is a uniquely American tradition. Not just because its roots can be traced to our earliest Native and Western populations; not just because it was celebrated during the birth of our nation; and not just because it was adopted as a unifying gesture for our fissured country — but because of all of that and more. Thanksgiving’s roots are far deeper entrenched in who we are as a people than a simple story about pilgrims could ever be. The basis of the holiday is intrinsic to the American spirit. It’s a day where, no matter how far we’ve come or how far we have left to go, we can take a moment to be thankful for the good in our circumstances. The holiday has shifted in date and delivery, adjusting to best suit the needs of our nation, but it’s always been about gratitude.
We, born into this generation of Americans, have a higher standard of living, more information at our fingertips, better educational institutions and greater opportunities than any generation that has come before us. The computer or phone you’re reading this article on is a perfect representation of the veritable lottery we won by living after polio and during the age of Netflix. Even amid global conflict, domestic unrest, and political upheaval, we Americans have a lot to be thankful for.
America has so much to be thankful for — perhaps me most of all — so let’s express that gratitude today without cynicism. Let’s set aside political contempt and cultural misunderstandings and simply agree that, no matter how far we’ve come or how far we still have left to go, we were all fortunate to be born American at such an incredible time. Be thankful for the sacrifices of others. Be thankful for the support of those close to you. Be thankful for one another.
And Happy Thanksgiving.