How Thanksgiving became a secular, national holiday
From Pilgrim sighs to pumpkin pies
BY TOMORROW, over 46m Americans will have crisscrossed their country to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends. With any luck, turkey, pumpkin pie and good cheer await. The story of the celebration is enshrined in American lore. In November 1620 a group of English Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after two months aboard the Mayflower. They were helped through the deprivations of their first winter by local Wampanoag Indians, who offered provisions and advice. Following a successful harvest the next year, 50 Pilgrims and 90 Indians celebrated with a turkey feast. The rest is supposedly history. But history is full of half-truths, and Thanksgiving is no exception. The way Americans celebrate the holiday today—as an annual, secular event—is a 19th-century invention.
The Pilgrims were a stern bunch. Holidays were scarce. Christmas, Easter and saints’ days were forbidden. Instead, Pilgrims observed days of public fast or thanksgiving. These were proclaimed in response to specific events, so varied each year. It was believed that fasting could temper a looming crisis, such as a drought or invasion, while thanksgiving marked a good harvest or military victory. Prayer was at the heart of these events. Evidence about the gathering in 1621, albeit just four sentences long, comes from a letter by the Pilgrims’ leader, Edward Winslow. Wampanoag Indians appeared along with their chief, Massasoit, “whom for three days we entertained and feasted”.
Pilgrims made no mention of the event in later years (which was not a thanksgiving in the proper sense, since it involved no prayer) and relations with the Indians quickly soured. Within a generation they were at war. The Pilgrims won, and in 1676 declared a day of thanks, displaying the impaled head of Massasoit’s son—“meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness”, in the words of one Pilgrim. New Englanders continued to observe days of thanksgiving over the next 200 years, carrying the custom with them as they moved to the south and the west.