Totally unrelated to Indian film post warning! But before I got into Indian film, I was into history, so this is a fun post on the history of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is such an interesting Holiday in America. It’s totally unique to us, it’s totally secular, and it is a Big Deal. Nation-states are always trying to create holidays, something that bonds together everyone within an arbitrarily defined geographic territory, and it almost never works. For example, think of how Diwali or Eid is celebrated in India versus Gandhi Jayante. The ancient international religious holidays are a way bigger deal than the national new holiday.
Thanksgiving, it turns out, is international and was religious, and then in America it became something different and unique to us. Days of prayer and Thanksgiving were routinely called through out Europe by the churches, often following a Good Harvest, sometimes after victory in war or something similar. They were days to come together and take a moment to look around and be grateful to God for what He has given you.
(And also have a big parade)
The first settlers in America were religious societies. There was no separation between church and state. So when the ship Margaret (hey! That’s me!) landed in Virginia in 1619, part of their charter was that all the travelers had to spend a day giving prayers of Thanksgiving to God upon their arrival on December 4th.
The more famous “first Thanksgiving” in America was in 1621 in Plymouth. Again, a fully religious community, the Puritans, and their leader called for a day of Thanksgiving to God to celebrate a good Harvest. But this is where Thanksgiving begins to bend from being fully religious to something a bit more. Because the Puritans invited their neighbors, the Wampanoags, this this meal. The Wampanoags were not Puritan, would not be part of the prayer service, but were part of the community and the celebration anyway.
In America, there is a push to recognize Thanksgiving as a symbol of oppression of the native people. But I don’t think that is right. I think the spirit of that first Thanksgiving was gratitude between the communities. The Wampanoags, like all people in America at that time, had been literally decimated by European diseases and desperately needed allies. The Puritans had landed in a new country and barely survived their first winter through the charity of their new neighbors. These were strangers who became friends and built a community of mutual support together. This one day and this one meal really was about gratitude towards each other. Thanksgiving as I learned it in school had a lot of simplified dangerous stories about Puritans versus American Indians, but it also taught me the name of “Squanto”, a single man who saved a whole community and who is honored in schools through out America on this day.
Squanto, for you non-Americans, was an American Indian who was kidnapped and enslaved and taken to Europe. There he was educated as sort of a novelty and traveled around, until he was finally allowed to return to his home in America. Only to discover his entire community had died of disease and he was completely alone. He was taken in by the Wampanoags and, when the Puritans arrived, used his language skills to broker a treaty that helped both groups. Without his willingness to act as diplomat and interpreter, the Puritan community would not have survived. He was called “Squanto” in their writings and their vision of him as an almost mystical savior is what is taught to American school children. And that seems right to me. He saved their lives, when he could have turned his back. He had suffered unimaginable trauma in his life, had lost literally everything, and he chose to help others. He deserves our Thanks.
(This is my favorite drawing of Squanto I found online. I think it is an American school child drawing for us so we know who to be thankful to)
Squanto is the start of the American Thanksgiving being a little bit different from the other versions. “Days of Thanksgiving” continued to be regularly declared in the American colonies, but they weren’t declared by the Church any more. They were secular Days of Thanksgiving, declared for all people no matter what religion or background, by secular leaders. And this culminated with George Washington, our first president, declaring a Day of Thanksgiving for all of America in 1789. No church was behind him, no religious service required, just being American meant you had to give Thanksgiving in some for or another on this date.
For years after Washington, a “Day of Thanksgiving” was declared by secular state authorities towards the end of November, but the day varied, and tended to be set state by state or even city by city. That changed with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, who declared a National Day of Thanksgiving to be held annually on the last Thursday in November. He made this declaration in the middle of our Civil War, so it was a bit moot as half of America didn’t even recognize him as president and all of America was too sad and hungry to really be Thankful. But the idea stuck around, and post-war became a reality, the last Thursday in November was declared a “Day of Thanksgiving” by the American president, and all of America sat down together and ate food to celebrate a good harvest.
Thanksgiving was unchanged in America until 1939 when President Roosevelt decided to move it back a week in order to expand the Christmas shopping season. This was a bit if a disaster, as he made the decision so late in the year no one could really plan for it. But 2 years later he formalized it into the “4th Thursday in November”, not the LAST Thursday in November as it had been previously.
What is most striking to me in that story of the modern American Thanksgiving is that the 3 generally considered Best and Most Important Presidents in American history were the ones who changed Thanksgiving. Washington started it, Lincoln made it National, and Roosevelt had it written into a formal law and date. The 3 men who were most aware of the heartbeat of the nation, who lead us during our hardest times, were the ones who fully understood the importance of this day to just sit down and be thankful and break bread together.
George Washington stopped in the middle of uniting America and creating the American state as we know it in order to declare this holiday. Lincoln took time in the middle of a war to declare it. And Roosevelt, 19 days after Pearl Harbor and entering WWII, took time to give Thanksgiving an official permanent date.
So tomorrow, Americans will be celebrating Squanto, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and each other as we sit down to have a meal together. And that’s Thanksgiving.