The Pilgrims and Native Americans did not invent Thanksgiving, but they embraced the concept and made it their own. Harvest festivals have been celebrated for thousands of years by many peoples, tribes, and nations in appreciation of the bounty produced by their hard work and stewardship of the land. American lore has burnished the end-of-harvest feast into the holiday of Thanksgiving, marking the story of the colonials of Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people in 1621 who reveled for three days without harming one another.
Early New World settlers were ecstatic simply to survive the weather, wildlife, insects, and poison ivy, so they understood accepting the friendship and sharing the food of the Wampanoags was a blessing.
In the following decades, however, white settlers dominated the natives, whose numbers fell dramatically to infectious diseases brought from Europe and displacement from their traditional lands. Not the finest paleface moments. The budding friendship at Plymouth Plantation eventually went sideways.
Politicians Impose Gratefulness
Harvest festivals continued in communities up and down the Eastern Seaboard, while colonists dealt with New World problems, especially a little skirmish with Mother England and King George III that resulted in a Revolutionary War. That ended with a newly created U.S. Constitution in 1789, when President George Washington issued a proclamation designating Nov. 26 of that year as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.”
Be grateful or else. Or as George ordered, thank God for providing “an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” He was effectively imposing gratefulness as today’s elected officials today attempt to regulate morality. Thomas Jefferson eschewed the new government’s involvement in designating federal religious holidays, as Washington had done, as not appropriate in a country built in part on the separation of church and state.
President Abraham Lincoln pooh-poohed that notion, dug up Washington’s proclamation, and reissued something similar during the height of the Civil War. Lincoln expressed his own gratitude to God for the victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, calling upon his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
Traditionally, the last Thursday in November was set aside as a day of American Thanksgiving. Just be grateful for something – a bountiful crop, smart investments – and count your blessings. But then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shook it up a bit. In 1938, FDR changed the date to the third Thursday, in hopes of spurring holiday shoppers to get a head start and spend what little money they had during the Great Depression. But, alas, no one listened; Americans failed to accept the bewildering date change, and Thanksgiving was celebrated on the fourth Thursday. In 1941, that date had to be set in stone by the 77th Congress and signed by Confuser-in-Chief Roosevelt.
Just for One Day Let’s Embrace Our Pilgrim Attitude
For just one day, let’s go native on Thanksgiving. In 1621, folks had the right attitude. They were simply thrilled to be alive and have a three-day food bender. They cared not about skin hue or that their culture, social norms, and gods were decidedly different. Somehow, they made it work. If we can keep the blessed politicians and offense-mongers out of our holiday, that would be something to give thanks for this year. Go hug a Wampanoag.
Read more from Sarah Cowgill.
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