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Opinion

History of Thanksgiving explored

Brittney Pfenning­-Wendt

November 18, 2011

Thanksgiving break is upon us, less than a week away. Everyone is itching to get home and enjoy a wonderful feast with their family and friends. It’s a time of traditions, each lending a hand in what we envision when we hear talk about “turkey day”. Perhaps a golden turkey
roast overflowing with stuffing, surrounded by favorite dishes including dressing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, rolls, and of course the dessert: pie. All of this delicious food and great company to share with are what we look forward to, but what about the meaning behind it? Many don’t know how the holiday came about, assuming it has been going on ever since the pilgrim and Native American feast of thanks. Thanksgiving has had an interesting history, evolving into what we view it as today, and most recently has been battling to maintain the true meaning behind the holiday, giving thanks.

Many falsely believe that Thanksgiving started with the pilgrim feast in 1621. It wasn’t the first Thanksgiving, but it did play a major role in the declaration of the holiday as well as the idea of the feast. Their three-day feast of thanks didn’t include turkey or pumpkin pie, as flour was not in high availability at the time.

Their feast was a one-time occasion, giving thanks for the survival of their greatly depleted company during the harsh winter. The pilgrims maintained the idea of thanks by including the Native Americans in gratitude for their aid and tips in surviving the winter weather, not an easy feat as we Minnesotans and Wisconsinites know all too well. What we can take from the pilgrims is their ability to maintain the idea of thanks and gratitude amidst the giant feast.

Nothing like the pilgrim feast of thanks occurred again until June 29, 1676 when the Community of Charlestown, Mass. declared a feast day to give thanks for securely establishing their community.

The closest event to a national Thanksgiving came about in October 1777, when the 13 colonies celebrated thanksgiving and the victory at Saratoga. Again this was a one-time affair and did not lead to an annual Thanksgiving.

The idea of an annual celebration was presented by George Washington who proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving and prayer on Nov. 26, 1789. This was short lived when Thomas Jefferson opposed it, to the liking of the people. Many did not feel that a day of Thanksgiving should celebrate the feat of a small company of pilgrims. A certain journalist, Sarah Josepha Hale, however, disagreed.

Hale was a magazine editor who embarked on a 40-year campaign in efforts to resurrect the holiday. She wrote to Congress and the Presidents in hopes that they would listen. Eventually, in 1863, due to her efforts, President Abraham Lincoln established that the last Thursday of November would be a National day of Thanksgiving.

Over the years the future presidents continued to recognize the last Thursday in November as a day of giving thanks. Families started traditions including the great turkey feast. This is where the charm of giving thanks began to diminish. Families began to lose sight of the meaning as traditions shifted towards football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began in 1924. Black Friday is also a common commercialized Thanksgiving tradition seen today. The holiday has become a gateway into the Christmas season, almost like a carbo-load before a big game. President Roosevelt even moved the holiday earlier to allow for a longer Christmas shopping season. Luckily this was moved back after two years as people realized what was being lost. Congress then established Thanksgiving as a legal holiday in 1941, being the fourth Thursday of November to further appease the public, ending worry of the holiday moving again.

Despite these efforts of keeping the season its rightful length, I feel that the message is lost once again. The Christmas season cannot be held at bay and Thanksgiving just becomes a stressful day filled with frantic cooking, cleaning, and travelling. These traditions of parades, football, and shopping, do not reflect the idea of giving thanks.

Although, with a little thought the message can be found amidst them. I am not asking you to give up these traditions. As a die-hard Black Friday shopper myself I understand the bonding side it has as well. Football, parades, and shopping may represent a shared interest with members of your family; by spending time with them you are showing that you are thankful for one another.

I would like to challenge you all to find the thanks side of your traditions and really emphasize on those this year and in years to come. If you can’t find a meaning or message, then maybe it’s time you start some of your own traditions to show thanks. There are many unique traditions out there; I’d love to hear some of yours.

Brittney Pfenning­-Wendt is a columnist for the Student Voice.