The Origins of Thanksgiving
Over the centuries, Thanksgiving has become a special day to share a home-cooked meal with loved ones and an offering of thanks for our blessings. In many ways, Thanksgiving is the quintessential “Slow Food” holiday. And yet, as many of us know, Thanksgiving has a complicated and controversial past. As we celebrate with family and friends, it’s worth remembering the complexity and suffering from which our modern holiday of love, food and family was born.
Many of us are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving: Pilgrims celebrated a
successful harvest after a few years of starvation and struggle together with friends from the Wampanoag Nation. That harvest was made possible thanks to the knowledge, seeds and traditional farming practices that the Native Americans shared with the newly arrived settlers.
What many of us don’t know is the story that followed in the intervening years
between that celebration and the holiday of family, food and giving that many of us are familiar with today. Following nearly two decades of peace, newly arrived Europeans began massacres of native peoples across the northeast over issues of land rights and ownership. (These killings were widely condemned by the original Pilgrims – many of whom were expelled from the society for voicing their opposition).
After one particularly successful massacre in what is now Connecticut, settlers gathered for a feast of “thanksgiving” – giving thanks for their victory over the native peoples. This is the tragic story of the second Thanksgiving. In subsequent years, as the killings across the northeast took on a frenzy, settlers held feasts of thanksgiving after each successful slaughter. By many accounts, George Washington brought order by declaring one day to be celebrated across the nation as “Thanksgiving Day.” Thanksgiving then became an official state holiday during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln declared that it would fall on the fourth Thursday of every November.
Though none of us alive today took part in these atrocities, it is important to know the full context of the holiday in order to understand why some people find it difficult to celebrate. It is through this awareness that we bring thoughtfulness and true thanksgiving to our enjoyment.
About this Project
The purpose of this project is to celebrate the diversity of food cultures and harvest traditions that are rooted in the land and people across the United States. We acknowledge that we were only able to highlight a small sample of the rich variety available.
Learn more about the original Thanksgiving:
- Thanksgiving: Its True History [warning: graphic discussion of massacres]
A Native American perspective on the history of the holiday.
Source: Tidewater Native American Support Group, Inc.
- Debunking Pilgrim Myths
Nathaniel Philbrick dispels some of the myths surrounding the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, including the date of that dinner, what was eaten and what it was called.
- The True Story of the First Thanksgiving [article]
A look at the visual images related to the first Thanksgiving and analysis of an eyewitness report.
Source: Muse from the publishers of Cricket and Smithsonian Magazine
- First Thanksgiving [for kids]
Educational resource for talking with kids about Thanksgiving.
Source: National Geographic Kids
- What Was on the Menu
The history of the holiday meal tells us that a tasty bird was always the centerpiece, but other courses have since disappeared from the table.