For three strange days: A short history of Thanksgiving

Just in time for that turkey coma and Black Friday frenzy, our writer muses on the origins of Thanksgiving:

Our mouths stuffed with pumpkin pie and both hands possessively gripping dripping chunks of turkey meat, rarely is the question asked, “How did this come to be?”

Not the gripping of the turkey meat thing, because that’s pretty obvious, but  rather Thanksgiving in the first place. Did the pilgrims sit down to watch football with cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce? Probably not, but our knowledge, save historical misappropriations, mostly ends there.


As it turns out, the story of Thanksgiving began like many tales of cooperation–with  a treaty. Upon their arrival in New England, our ancestral intruders hereafter referred to as pilgrims sent an emissary to shore to strike an “I’ll watch your back, you watch mine” deal with the Wampanoag locals, a necessity in a time when native-colonial relations were, to use a euphemism, rocky. After a brutal winter of near-total obliteration, the surviving settlers were generously

instructed in the ways of  corn, resulting in a high-yield crop the following autumn and cause for celebration. Overjoyed with their change in fortune, the settlers caroused in the age-old tradition of shooting their guns needlessly into the air. Hearing the turmoil, the Wampanoag with whom they’d struck an agreement sent 90 warriors on a scouting mission, ready to uphold their end of the deal. On their arrival however, the Wampanoag found the pilgrims in a curious state of revelry and decided to set up camp nearby to see what would unfold. 

“[O]ur governor sent four men on [a hunt]…At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us…whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” This quotation comes from a journal of the settler Edward Winslow and is one of the few primary documents detailing the  pilgrims’ lives at that time. It is also one of the only remaining first-hand accounts of what happened those strange three days of 1621.

Americans continued to celebrate Thanksgiving intermittently for hundreds of  years, and by the mid-1800s an influential magazine editor named Sarah Josepha  Hale embarked on what would be a 17-year petition to instate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale succeeded in 1863, under President Lincoln, establishing Thanksgiving as a way to conciliate a civil war-torn nation.

It would be another 78 years before an official day would be set for the celebration. In 1941, it was officially decreed to take place on the fourth Thursday of November.

Black Friday, unfortunately, was not far behind.  Harking back to a letter written by Edward Winslow, the settler penned a poetic reminder of what Thanksgiving meant then as much as now nearly 400 years later, “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us…we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Now pass me that gravy.



“The First Thanksgiving”

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris / Wikimedia Commons

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