An Outlook

As regular readers of this column know, I have an abiding interest in the history and traditions of holidays. Throughout the years of writing this column I have discussed Christmas and Christmas-related celebrations, American Independence Day, Halloween, and – of course – Thanksgiving. Last year I re-told the gruesome details of King Philip’s murder by the sons of daughters of original English settlers who once celebrated a “thanksgiving” feast with King Philip’s father, Massasoit (sometimes spelled Massassoyt).

This time around, I’ll steer clear of correcting historical oversights and focus on the sequence of events that gave rise to our celebration of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November each year.

The “first” Thanksgiving was celebrated at Plymouth in 1621. Although we are bombarded today with all manner of images concerning this particular event there are only two primary source written accounts that offer any description of the festivities. One of these accounts is in a letter dated December 12, 1621, written by Edward Winslow (the letter was first published in 1622 and is reprinted in full in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth). The pertinent portion of the letter reads:

Our corn [Note: this is a misnomer on Winslow’s part since the Pilgrims did not grow any real corn at this point. What he is actually referring to is wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

William Bradford, in his History of Plymouth Plantation, wrote the second account almost 20 years after the event. Bradford’s account is as follows:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

Bradford’s History is, through a quirk, the more interesting of the two accounts of the “first” Thanksgiving, even though it was written 20 years later than Winslow’s. But, before I get ahead of myself and tell you why Bradford’s is the more interesting of the two records I should probably explain why I have been typing the phrase “first” Thanksgiving with the word first in quotation marks.

You see, contrary to popular legend, the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth and hosted the event described by Winslow and Bradford in 1621, didn’t host a similar type feast in 1622…or 1623…or, apparently, ever again. Indeed, the three day food orgy shared by “king” Massasoit, ninety of his men, and a bunch of European immigrants might have been completely forgotten (or, at least, a mere footnote in history) if not for the concerted effort of a Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale and a discovery in 1854.

In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began to lobby American Presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Prior to Mrs. Hale’s efforts, several Presidents had designated a day of thanksgiving (including George Washington), but these were always a one-time occurrence. Despite repeated efforts with a succession of Presidents, Mrs. Hale’s effort were unsuccessful, but in 1854 her campaign received a decided boost when Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, which had been stolen by British looters during the Revolutionary War, was rediscovered. With the country rapidly approaching the crisis that resulted in the Civil War, however, the effort to formalize a national day of Thanksgiving still languished for another nine years, when President Abraham Lincoln formally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation [it should be noted that, with the country torn in half by the Civil War, the political symbolism of a day of Thanksgiving was probably the chief motivation for Lincoln’s Proclamation, rather than any history].

As a final thought for this week, I like to point out that Lincoln’s Proclamation designated Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in the month of November. President Franklin Roosevelt changed this date in 1939 (and approved by Congress two years later – surprise, surprise) to the fourth Thursday in November. The reason for the change was that, under Lincoln’s Proclamation, Thanksgiving occasionally fell on the fifth Thursday which was too close to Christmas for the taste of the business lobby (i.e. retailers).

So you see, the over commercialization of the holiday season has been around for almost 70 years!