Thanksgiving Day falls on the 25th of November this year: and this celebration is a big thing in North America. Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November in both the USA and Canada, and, broadly, it is a time to offer thanks for the harvest and all the good stuff that the previous year has brought. Although the holiday’s roots are religious, it’s marked secularly, too, and is now largely seen as a celebration to generally - as its name suggests - offers thanks and show gratitude.
But there’s more to Thanksgiving than meets the eye. Below, we explore both the origin of Thanksgiving and how it’s not necessarily being celebrated entirely as it should be…
What Is the Origin of Thanksgiving?
The traditional story of Thanksgiving centers on the group of Pilgrims who arrived in North America on The Mayflower in 1620. They had traveled from Plymouth in England and gave this name to the location of the colony they subsequently founded: Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts.
The Thanksgiving feast, as the traditional story has it, marks the gathering together of the PIlgrims and the Native Americans to share a meal in celebration of a successful harvest. But this Thanksgiving origin tale isn’t quite the whole story. Here’s how you could be celebrating it wrong.
The Timeline is Off
Ok, first things first: yes, the Pilgrims did celebrate a successful harvest in 1621, and it’s likely that members of the Wampanoag tribe were invited to the feast. So far, so good. But it wasn’t until more than two hundred years later that this event was termed ‘the first Thanksgiving,’ when a group of New Englanders decided that the connotations of the historic feast fit in pretty well with a similar holiday that they celebrated. And Thanksgiving, as a holiday, wasn’t made official until 1863, when it was used by the president to show gratitude for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Gettysburg, Philadelphia.
Plus, there’s the fact that both Native American and European communities had been celebrating harvests with festivals and feasts for centuries, so the idea of a ‘first’ Thanksgiving occurring in 1621 is not entirely on the mark.
The Relationship Between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims
It is now understood to be very unlikely that the Wampanoag tribe members’ attendance at the Pilgrims’ feast was due to friendly relations between the two communities. In all probability, the Wampanoag representatives were invited and attended for political reasons, and the celebration certainly didn’t mark a sense of unity between the parties but more a strategic meeting.
You Should Be Eating Deer
There’s no evidence that turkey was eaten at the 1621 feast that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe members shared, although there is evidence that the Wampanoag brought five deer as a contribution to the meal. And although wildfowl may also have been served, these could just as likely have been duck or goose as wild turkey.
Similarly, there’s no proof of the presence of pie, either. Given that the Pilgrims lacked butter and wheat flour, as well as ovens in which to bake, it’s unlikely that they would have been able to produce pies for the feast. Sweet potatoes were not grown in America at the time, either, so they couldn’t have featured on the menu, although cornmeal, pumpkin, cranberries, and succotash were fairly likely to have been part of the meal.
So, if venison was, in fact, the star turn, what is the meaning of turkey on Thanksgiving Day? It’s generally believed that the bird came to be associated with Thanksgiving due to its being eaten widely by New Englanders whose customs gradually spread west as they moved across North America. Practical reasons, too, no doubt played a part in its popularity as the star dish of the annual feast: as a big bird, it can feed a large number of people, and the prevalence of wild turkey, at the time, made it a convenient choice: most folk literally had it in their backyards.
Family Wasn’t the Focus
Now, the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday is one of the biggest of the year in terms of travel in the US and Canada, as family members make their way to one another’s homes to be together. Back in 1621, though, the harvest celebrations would have had their focus on the wider community, and the events were seen as an opportunity to bring lots of people together. Of course, the family would have been included in this, but gathering the family close was not seen as an important part of the festivities. So, if you’re wanting an excuse to miss someone off the guest list this year….just saying.
How the Celebration Looked
The origin of Thanksgiving in America is intrinsically tied with tradition and religious harvest celebrations that had their roots way back in the mists of time. And while today, the holiday is marked as a cozy feast that brings together family and friends, in 1621, it would have looked rather different.
As well as the feast, there would likely have been several bonfires - something that harked back to the pagan ways of marking the bounty of harvest-time that predated the Christian celebrations. There would have been rounds of celebratory gunshots, fired, too, and several historians have suggested that, rather than being invited to the meal, members of the Wampanoag tribe may actually have visited the colony to find out what was going on and whether an attack was imminent.
While celebrating with intricate decorations and family hugs all around may not be historically accurate, it’s probably more socially acceptable than lighting a fire in your backyard and making so much noise that your neighbors mistake your revels for a genuine battle.
The Meaning Behind Thanksgiving Today
Now that we’ve looked at the question, ‘how did Thanksgiving originate?’ It's time to think about the true meaning of Thanksgiving Day, as it is celebrated in the US and Canada now. It’s important to be aware of the historical inaccuracies that have become an intrinsic part of the tradition - and how problematic these are in terms of reinforcing racial and cultural stereotypes - but it’s important, too, to acknowledge that the celebration is now generally marked as a simple day to give thanks and offer gratitude whilst being in the company of our nearest and dearest.
How Thanksgiving is Celebrated Now
The Thanksgiving holiday is now celebrated across the US and Canada as either a religious or secular event; some families attend church services and say a prayer before the meal, while others will express their gratitude for the blessing of the year just gone by in their own way.
Coming together with friends and family to share a meal is a key component of the holiday, and turkey with all the trimmings is the near-universal choice of food - although recent years have seen increasing numbers of folk opting for Vegetarian or Vegan Thanksgiving alternatives for their feast.
Football is almost as big a tradition as the turkey itself when it comes to the big day. The NFL always shows several big games, and gathering around the tv with loved ones to watch the game either before dinner or whilst recovering from the onslaught of roast turkey and cranberry sauce is an important part of the festivities for many households.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan, New York, has also become an intrinsic part of the holiday, and many other cities and towns hold parades of their own on the day, too. The Macy’s extravaganza features Santa Claus making a guest appearance at the end - his first of the year - to mark the beginning of the build-up to the Christmas holidays.
Alternative Ways of Celebrating Thanksgiving
For those who find the history of the holiday problematic or that want to steer clear of the religious aspects of the celebration, there are many ways to mark the day; these alternative celebrations are growing in popularity year on year.
Celebrate a Different Culture
Some households choose to enjoy the day by celebrating a different culture than that traditionally honored by Thanksgiving. For example, you could host a Mexican Thanksgiving or a Thai Thanksgiving: make it an opportunity to learn about the traditions and harvest or thanksgiving customs in these countries, and serve up some authentic food from the region.
Spend the Day Volunteering
This can be a really special way of celebrating and, regardless of the Thanksgiving origin, pretty much epitomizes the true meaning of Thanksgiving Day. Soup kitchens and shelters are always pleased to have offers of assistance, or there may be other voluntary organizations local to you where you could lend a hand.
Make a Fresh Start
Thanksgiving, with its focus on gratitude, is a great time to look back over the last year and to consider how you would like to move forward into the next one. It can be the perfect time to consolidate the lessons and experiences that the previous twelve months have offered us and plan for what we want to achieve next.
Thanksgiving is a great time to make new resolutions: whether that’s to incorporate mindful practices into our everyday lives, to learn a new language, to visit a country we’ve always wanted to, or to spend more time reading. Whatever your goals are, Thanksgiving Day can act as a point of balance between the past and the future and one on which to set an intention on how you would like that future to look.
For those with like-minded friends, a Friendsgiving celebration is a popular alternative to traditional events. Mark the day by gathering with your closest pals, and either cook and eat together or head out for a day of hiking, sports, or anything else that takes your fancy!
Fun Thanksgiving Stats and Facts
The average time that it takes to cook a Thanksgiving dinner is seven hours, and 96% of American families gather together to eat one - approximately forty-six million turkeys are eaten across the UK on the big day. Despite the hours it takes to make, on average, a family spends just sixteen minutes eating the meal. Pumpkin pie is the nation’s favorite after-dinner treat.
The average American travels more than fifty miles to spend the holiday with family or friends, and the most frequently visited city for Thanksgiving is New York.
You may have heard of something called the Turkey Pardon and wondered if your senses had temporarily let you down. Nope, it’s an actual real thing in the States. The first turkey was pardoned in 1989 by President Reagan, who, after being gifted a turkey, announced that he would ‘pardon’ it from an appearance on the Thanksgiving table and send it off to live out its life in comfort at a petting zoo. Before this, turkeys had been ‘spared,’ but not officially pardoned! Every year since 1989, the President has pardoned a pair of turkeys, and a list of all the pardoned feathery individuals can be found online.
Thinking of Moving to the US?
The US remains an extremely popular choice when it comes to emigration, in no small part due to the country’s renown for welcoming people from all different backgrounds and cultures. The US has a fantastic education system, with a number of its universities ranked as being among the best in the world, and the career opportunities that the country offers are stellar, too. That’s not to even mention the fact that the living space that the average American enjoys is more than twice that of their European neighbors due to the relative cheapness of property and land prices. Are you thinking of moving to the USA? Here’s what you need to know.
You’re Going to Need a Job
In most cases, to be allowed entry to the country long-term, you’re going to have a job lined up to go into or be accompanying someone that does. Be aware of scam jobs posted online, though, promising you a visa for a fee.
Medical Insurance Is Vital
If your home country has state-sponsored healthcare, then you’re going to need to get familiar with the new system. Healthcare and prescription costs can be very expensive in the US, with the average citizen spending $1,200 a year on prescription medicine. Research your options carefully when it comes to insurance, and make sure you understand the small print before signing anything.
Annual and Maternity Leave is Restricted
This one could come as a bit of a shock, too. The US does not offer paid maternity or paternity leave for new parents, although unpaid leave is available. Most workers tend to save up their holiday allowance and build up their overtime to use to spend time with their new baby.
Paid leave is something that only about 74% of American workers have access to, too, aside from the ten public holidays that fall on dates throughout the year.
Seasonal Holidays Are Huge
In the US, it’s not just Christmas and Thanksgiving that are celebrated as major events; Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and the 4th of July are also big deals, and you can expect to see the whole neighborhood getting involved in the festivities. Expect parties, festivals, parades, and themed...everything.
Most American folk love to dine out and do so regularly. This is no doubt helped along by the fact that eating out is not only relatively cheap in this country, but you can expect your portion size to be about double that of what you’d be served elsewhere!
When dining out, remember to tip: tipping is an important yet unspoken rule of American etiquette; about 15-20% of the total cost of the meal is the standard amount, although be mindful that some restaurants automatically add a tip to the bill.
Be aware that the price ticket that you see on an item in an American store isn’t what you’ll pay at the till. This is because the sales tax is added on at the point you come to pay for your goods. And just to make this even more challenging for the newly made American citizen, the rate of the sales tax differs from state to state. Which at least means that, very quickly, you’re going to see an improvement in your mental math skills.
Preparing For Your First Thanksgiving in the US
Hopefully, the above post has given you some pointers about how the day is celebrated in the US, as well as addressing the question, ‘what is the real meaning of Thanksgiving?’
Aside from the culture and customs surrounding the day, a large part of its significance is the eschewing of consumerism (temporarily!) in order to enjoy being with the people who matter most to us.
However, you choose to celebrate and mark the day, use it as a way to bring your awareness fully to the pleasures and blessings of your life. Happy Thanksgiving!
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