The reasons behind the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America are quite different than the reasons why Thanksgiving is celebrated today.
Aside from giving thanks, much has changed for the holiday as the nation has evolved throughout the years. What began in Europe as a day to fast and give thanks to God has transformed into the November holiday known for feasting.
“Days of thanksgiving, in Europe in general and England specifically, were times of fasting and prayer as a way to thank God for something,” said Highline history professor Rachael Bledsaw.
Bledsaw has been teaching U.S history and world civilizations at Highline since 2017.
The tradition was first observed in North America in 1607 with the establishment of Jamestown as the first English colony, celebrating the ship’s safe arrival with the settlers, Bledsaw said.
The pilgrims brought the tradition with them when they first arrived in what became Massachusetts in 1620, which begs the question, why did they come in the first place?
“The short answer? England wanted to kill them, and the Dutch were too open minded,” Bledsaw said.
The pilgrims, also known as the Puritans, were a radical branch of another religious group called the Dissenters, Bledsaw said. The Dissenters disapproved of Catholic influence on the Church of England and desired for it to be more Protestant, she said.
While Dissenters wished to rid the church some Catholic elements, the Puritans wished to remove all Catholic elements from the church, she said.
“Puritans disagreed so much that they started having their own religious services in secret, which was a form of treason because you were going against the crown. … Puritans who were caught were hung as traitors,” Bledsaw said.
“Not wanting to be hung, but unwilling to accept the services of the Anglican church, some Puritans left England for the Netherlands,” Bledsaw said.
The Netherlands at the time had a more tolerant attitude toward practicing religion so the Puritans were able to do so without persecution, she said. This lax attitude began to rub off on the Puritans’ children and it horrified their parents, which made them want to leave yet again, she said.
“It is true that the Pilgrims left England for religious freedom, but they were in no way trying to establish a place of religious freedom. They wanted a place where they could worship safely, but they weren’t interested in creating a safe space for anyone else,” Bledsaw said.
As for the 1621 feast in Plymouth, the pilgrims ate “just about anything that could be eaten,” Bledsaw said. That feast has been continued in some for another across the country ever since.
“While there are only two primary sources related to the feast, one was pretty detailed on the menu and it included turkey, duck, geese, lobster, oysters, and venison. … The turkey is easy, it was native to North America and even in its wild state was pretty large,” Bledsaw said.
“Our domestication and selective breeding of them made them larger, but they were plentiful, easy to catch, and pretty tasty. … Pork was not because domesticated pigs weren’t around yet,” Bledsaw said.
“Squashes and local vegetables were the side dishes. Desserts were disappointing since sugar was still a relative rarity for most people, but pumpkin pie was certainly there,” she said.
Other foods like stuffing and cranberry sauce became associated with the holiday as ingredients became more available locally, coupled with growing influence from celebrities and political figures, Bledsaw said.
“I’m not actually 100 percent on that, so a lot of this is careful speculation,” she said.
“Cranberries were not initially popular, but as sugar was more available, we get the modern cranberry sauce. While this is again speculation, it’s likely that the traditional foods started off as popular or trendy items, and the more people associated certain foods with this holiday, they felt obligated to recreate it again and again,” Bledsaw said.
Along with various dishes, attendees of the first Thanksgiving drank alcohol and played some simple games of skill to pass the time, Bledsaw said.
“Most of the entertainment was based on shooting matches and games of skill, think games like bean bag tossing and horseshoes. Foot races and wrestling were likely as well, gambling was unlikely considering the Puritan faith, but drinking was for sure happening,” Bledsaw said.
“Sports like soccer and football were not options yet, and it was all that noise and celebration that brought the local natives around to check and make sure their new neighbors weren’t in trouble from an enemy tribe,” Bledsaw said.
“The Native Americans weren’t invited to the feast, they crashed it. … We often forget that the Native Americans had enemies and conflicts too,” Bledsaw said.
“The 1621 feast was celebrating the massacre of 700 members of the Pequot tribe. … The Pequots were not allies of the party crashers, so they saw no problem joining the feast,” Bledsaw said.
Nearly the whole history of Thanksgiving would surprise someone because of how many misconceptions there are, Bledsaw said.
“Despite this, our modern Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the slaughter of Native Americans. I see why people say it, but when you lay out all the facts, it doesn’t hold water,” Bledsaw said.
Many thanksgivings were observed similarly to how the traditional thanksgiving was observed all throughout the American Revolution and early republic, she said. However it wasn’t until 1863 when writer and activist Sarah Hale called for the day to be officially observed nationally.
“Throughout 1863 Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a serious of editorials calling for a national day of thanksgiving to acknowledge those who were fighting, those who died, and all those left behind. She argued that the day should be the fourth Thursday of November,” Bledsaw said.
“Lincoln agreed with her and on Oct. 3, 1863, he called for the fourth Thursday of November to be a national day of mourning and thanksgiving. As he put it, a day for all Americans to pray for the dead, the widows, the orphans, and all the other mourners, as well as for God to end the war quickly,” Bledsaw said.
Every president after Lincoln carried out the tradition each year and in 1941, FDR made the day a reoccurring federal holiday.
The holiday was still called year after year until it was officialized and began to develop a different connotation after the Civil War, Bledsaw said.
“The Union had won, the slaves were free, we were expanding all the way to the Pacific, we were the ultimate goal for many groups seeking freedom,” she said.
After World War I, the country saw itself as heroes and sprang into the Roaring ‘20s which brought economic and social growth, Bledsaw said.
“Why mourn when you could celebrate your blessings?” she asked.
“Steadily the modern Thanksgiving developed with the large meal, gathering family, and of course regional variations. In some areas, turkey shoots were popular, in other areas the holiday retained its religious overtones and church services were held,” she said.
“No one was talking about the pilgrims though. In fact, for decades the 1621 feast was not even known about, until references to it were found,” she said. “Our modern Thanksgiving is around the same time but has almost nothing to do with the 1621 feast. Or the massacre that inspired it.”
“At some point, and it isn’t clear when, the story of the 1621 feast was slapped on to create a national narrative of unity and brethren and freedom since the founding of the United States as a colony,” she said.
“It was absolute twaddle with only the most distant basis in fact, but which would you rather celebrate: a day of mourning, or a day where you can feel good about yourself and the world around you?” Bledsaw asked.
“And a group looking for religious freedom as your foundation sounds a lot better than, ‘These poor people wanted land and money!’ which was the case of Jamestown,” she added.
“The American Thanksgiving has regional variations, and as more immigrants arrived, they altered some traditions too, so it can get a bit messy figuring out what is actually traditional, and what has been happening for so long that it just feels that way,” Bledsaw said.
“As Thanksgiving lost its mourning shroud, it came to symbolize the start of the holiday shopping season in the US. It was so important to the economy that in 1939 FDR moved Thanksgiving a week earlier to trigger people buying sooner,” she said.
“It was a shambles,” she said
FDR later changed the date officially to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941.
However the holiday has become more controversial for a variety of reasons, Bledsaw said.
“Comedians and T.V personalities feed the ‘Thanksgiving is about killing Native Americans’ a lot,” she said.
“We should absolutely acknowledge and correct the horrible ways the United States treated the Native Americans, and continues to treat them, because it is heart wrenching and a bloody stain on ourselves that we just don’t want to wash off properly,” she said.
“But focusing on Thanksgiving is not the way,” she said.
School plays that focus on pilgrims and Native Americans sitting peacefully make children and parents feel good but fails to include key details, she said.
“It is absolutely not taught accurately in schools. But to be fair, much of early education, particularly in history, is just a very specific form of brain washing,” she said.
“Its purpose is to instill a deep sense of pride and patriotism to the United States early on. That’s not a bad thing, but when people find out about the massacre, they feel lied to and justifiably so,” Bledsaw said.
“Thanksgiving education could be a great source of national pride and understanding, the holiday morphed and changed just like the United States itself has. But that isn’t what is being taught,” she said.
“And statements like that are why my family is probably pretty happy I moved thousands of miles away from them.”