10 surprising Thanksgiving facts

If your family is anything like mine, it will come as no surprise that even Thanksgiving has become the subject of a political tug-of-war. After all, we live in complex times: His family or yours? Where will the children celebrate, with her new spouse or mine? With so many families blended at the table, whose recipes and traditions will we follow?

Why should our national family be any different?

It isn’t. In these fractious times, the story of the Mayflower plies stormy political seas, and the meaning of Thanksgiving has been swept up in partisan gales. On the right, as The New York Times reported over the weekend, the Pilgrims’ tale has become a parable for the failures of socialism. In one telling, the colonists who landed on Plymouth Rock established an ill-fated communal system where all had to pool their harvests and their game. Confusion, thievery and famine ensued, until William Bradford, leader of the colony, abolished the socialist system in favor of a capitalist economy in which each colonist kept the fruits of his labor. For which the Pilgrims gave thanks.

On the left, the story of Thanksgiving is the story not of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, but of Plymouth Rock landing on the Indians. From this perspective one man’s bounty is another man’s theft. And the dispossession of American Indians from land they had known for centuries was but the first in a long series of depredations brought about by white settlement of the North American continent.

Such disputes will never cease, but in the spirit of taking a holiday from argument, here are ten historical facts about Thanksgiving which suggest that Americans are capable of embracing both tradition and change. And that while we may now be at each others’ throats, our understanding of who we are and what unites us as a nation has a way of evolving, just as our families evolve to embrace new members and new traditions.

  1. The national holiday did not begin with the Pilgrims. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national day of Thanksgiving, following the American victory at Saratoga, which by historical consensus was a good day for the country.
  2. The holiday has many fathers, including the father of our country. George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday, when in 1789 he set aside November 26, a Tuesday, as a day of thanksgiving for adoption of the U.S. Constitution, another good day for the country.
  3. The holiday also has a mother. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a popular 19th century woman’s magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, started a campaign in 1846 to make Thanksgiving a holiday celebrating harvests going back to the Pilgrims’ feast.
  4. So it did have something to do with the Pilgrims. And perhaps Thanksgiving partisans can agree that the tradition of celebrating the holiday on Thursday – which became a custom throughout New England in the 17th century — dates back to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, where post-harvest festivals were celebrated on the weekday regularly set aside as “Lecture Day,” a midweek church meeting where topical sermons were presented.
  5. But there are even earlier claimants to the first Thanksgiving on the North American continent. Some trace the first Thanksgiving to the ill-fated English settlement in Jamestown, Va., in 1607. Others say it was even earlier than that: celebrated in Florida in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, or by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, camping on the Palo Duro in Texas in 1541.
  6. Abraham Lincoln is also a father of Thanksgiving. Sarah Josepha Hale’s 19th century campaign for a Thanksgiving holiday culminated in the midst of the Civil War. In 1863 she got President Lincoln to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Nov. 26, a Thursday that year. In his proclamation, Lincoln named the last Thursday in the month as the day to celebrate.
  7. Presidents meddle with tradition at their own risk. With a few exceptions, Lincoln’s precedent was followed by every subsequent president – until 1939. That year Franklin D. Roosevelt, who thought the last Thursday was too close to Christmas, mandated the third Thursday in November instead. Controversy ensued. Many Americans, and some states, refused to recognize Roosevelt’s departure from tradition. For the next two years, he repeated the unpopular proclamation. But on November 26, 1941, he acknowledged defeat, agreeing to a joint resolution of Congress that specified the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, where it has remained pinned to the calendar ever since.
  8. Even so, you don’t have to be American to love Thanksgiving. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, as well, although their version of the holiday falls on the second Monday in October, rather than the fourth Thursday in November. Japan, South Korea, Laos and Liberia are also among the nations of the world with Thanksgiving holidays.
  9. George Washington got it right. Washington’s first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation urged not hubris, but humility: “that we may … unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications … beseeching [God] to pardon our national and other transgressions.” Rather than being a source of division, perhaps the association of this holiday with Pilgrims and Indians is an opportunity for us to acknowledge both our achievements and our shortcomings.
  10. But Thanksgiving is primarily for rejoicing. So let’s celebrate it in the spirit in which the Constitution, for which Washington urged us to give thanks, was written: That we are one people, however imperfect, constantly striving to perfect our evolving national union.

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