Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving Day - November 28, 2019

Most of us who live in the United States participate in—or at least are familiar with—the observance of Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday in November. Traditionally, families and often friends get together for a meal of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, veggies, cranberry concoctions, pumpkin pie, and a host of other goodies, as well as the warmth and good feelings generated by the company, the food, and the occasion.

When and where did this tradition begin? As a child, I heard stories of Pilgrims and local Indians sitting down together for a meal to celebrate a successful fall harvest. Ink drawings cemented an image of sharing and camaraderie in my mind that remains to this day, but sometimes stories and images don't tell the real stories or the whole stories. So, wanting to know the truthfulness of my youthful impressions, I sought historical verification. The results of my search were somewhat surprising and occasionally disconcerting. Rather than writing a long article about this celebration that has been observed off and on for some 400 years, I will list the highlights.
  • Considered by many the be the first Thanksgiving, a 3-day-long feast attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 English settlers took place in the fall of 1621 in the Massachusetts Bay area. For the religious Pilgrims, it was a celebration of thanks to their God for his material provisions.
  • However, earlier documented thanksgiving observances were conducted during the 1500s by the Spanish and French in what is now US territory. Settlers in the Virginia Commonwealth held thanksgiving services in 1607, and in 1619 the London Company charter required an annual holy day "in the land of Virginia" to thank their "Almighty God" for his blessings.
  • President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, to be a day of public thanksgiving. He later declared another thanksgiving day would be observed on Thursday, February 19, 1795. Decades later, November 26, 1863, was proclaimed to be a national day of thanksgiving by President Lincoln.
  • Thanksgiving days were celebrated differently in various areas of the country during the last half of the 1800s. Raffles, shooting matches, feasts, and football games were among the festivities.
  • During World War II, Republicans and Democrats disagreed on when Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated, resulting in some states observing it on November 30 (Republicans) and others on November 23 (Democrats). In December 1942, the Senate amended a previously passed bill and declared that the 4th Thursday of November would be a nationally celebrated Thanksgiving Day, adding an extra week to the upcoming Christmas shopping to please the nation's merchants. Today, the observance is traditionally a turkey day highlighted by eagerly anticipated football games that follow (or precede) a sumptuous meal. Politics has usurped the original celebration of gratitude for God's bounty.
  • Unfortunately, Thanksgiving also has a dark side. For example, in 1637 the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the colonial soldiers' annihilation of some 700 Native American men, women, and children. Those endearing stories of thanks to God for a bountiful harvest that was celebrated by the Pilgrims and local Indians was again splattered with the blood of thousands more casualties, both Native American and colonists, who died in numerous battles as the Europeans pushed forward to claim as their own the land belonging to all Indian tribes that stood in their way.

Now, in 2019, Thanksgiving Day leads straight to the door of massive discounts that kick-start the Christmas shopping season. The day after turkey day, dubbed Black Friday for good reason, is the largest (and most dangerous) shopping day of the year. Huge numbers of people wait in long lines for stores to open, often standing for hours in the cold and dark so they can grab some coveted item off the shelf before somebody else gets it first. Shoppers have been trampled to death by mobs pushing through the opened doors just hours after supposedly being thankful for their blessings.

My heart sinks. In my mind's eye, the ink drawings of peace and camaraderie fade. In their place a profoundly different picture emerges.

This research revealed a harsh reality, one I found both sad and unnerving. How do you feel about the day of thanks that began as a religious expression of gratitude to God and evolved quickly into something quite different—something that at times has commemorated violence and murder? Does it seem likely to you that the original intent of the day will ever again be celebrated on a grand scale? 

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and thrillers. You can contact her at websites: and


  1. Thanks for this history, Linda. I just heard about FDR's change of dates back during his term that caused all kinds of dissension. Never knew about that.

    I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. We've shared the day with another family for over thirty years. This year my DC son and girlfriend came, but my other son couldn't come because number three child is due any minute. It's the first time in years we won't all be together. Never needed anything enough to go shopping on Black Friday.

  2. Much has been written about the origins of Thanksgiving, and I barely scratched the surface in this article. Among the most credible resources I found were perhaps those written by ones present at the earliest celebrations. This comment, however, is not intended to discredit later records of the observance——or lack thereof. The biggest thing for me was the reality versus the story I was taught as a child, both in school and by my family. While I applaud getting together with family and friends and being grateful daily for every gift in our lives, I prefer those times to celebrate honesty, appreciation, and love of our fellow humans past and present. Just my opinion.

  3. I miss big family Thanksgiving gatherings now that all "our" elders have been replaced by "we" elders, and today's generations are scattered across the country. Still, it's up to us to make our celebration about gratitude rather than politics or shopping. My cousins traditionally go around the table and tell one of the things they're grateful for on that day. I found that a heartwarming experience.

  4. I believe every day is a good day to express gratitude, and family get-togethers provide wonderful opportunities to share what we are grateful for. When I was a youngster, I remember my mother, aunts, and grandmother talking, laughing, and working together in Grandma's kitchen to prepare the holiday meal for all of us to enjoy. The smells emanating from that kitchen always made me so hungry, and I could hardly wait for the food to be served. Now the ones who did that are all gone (except one aunt who is now over 100). My generation and those following us, like yours, are scattered around the country, and the family get-togethers I treasured as a child are a thing of the past. The memories, however, live on in our hearts.

  5. Just like Christmas, I can appreciate the aspect of family and friends coming together to celebrate life. I eschew the commercialization. Never been shopping on Black Friday. Fired the committee that says a holiday should be a certain way. We use it to relax and connect. Once you erase the fabricated image of what a holiday should be, you are free to make it whatever you want it to be.

  6. I've heard that a surprising number of businesses count on Christmas shopping to stay afloat. As far as commercialism goes, that pretty much says it all. Now for the fabrication--there's a whole lot of that going on this time of year. Bottom line: enjoy the day and, as you say, "make it whatever you want it to be." :-)

  7. Thanks for a great blog with some interesting history. I think the commercialization of both holidays is a symptom of a very sick society. One that places its values in material blessings rather than spiritual ones.

  8. Well said, Nancy. As a society we seem often to have lost sight of the more important things.


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