Forget what you learned about the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. It did not begin with the “Pilgrims and Indians” in 1621, when English settlers invited Native Americans to dinner. And Abraham Lincoln was not the first U.S. president to call for a national day of Thanksgiving.
Instead, says historian Penny Colman, the origins of the holiday are more complex. They are rooted in ancient traditions, one woman’s activism, and political and business interests.
Harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving
Colman wrote the book “Thanksgiving: The True Story.” She explains that people around the world have held harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving for centuries. Usually leaders called for a day of thanksgiving after winning a battle or surviving a difficult time.
In 1789, U.S. President George Washington called for a national day of thanksgiving during his first year in office. He did not say anything about “Pilgrims and Indians.” Instead, he urged Americans to thank God for their new government.
One woman’s activism
Then, in the middle 1800s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor, began pressing for a yearly day of thanksgiving. Hale could see that the country was changing. Families were separating – some people were moving west, and others were divided over the issue of slavery. At the same time, new immigrants were arriving. Hale wanted all Americans to come together to, in her words, unite “as one Great Family Republic.”
So Hale campaigned for the U.S. government to create a national Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November.
Historian Penny Colman told VOA some of Hale’s reasons: The end of November was the end of the harvest, but also a time when travelers returned home, and diseases were fewer. Thursdays were light days for housework. And the country had only two other national holidays – George Washington’s birthday in February, and Independence Day on the Fourth of July. Hale argued that Thanksgiving could honor the work of women, not just political or military success.
But in 40 years of letters, articles and speeches, Colman says, Hale never said anything about “Pilgrims and Indians.”
Lincoln sees a political opportunity
In 1863, Hale’s idea gained the attention of then-President Abraham Lincoln. At the time, the country was in the middle of a Civil War. Lincoln likely wanted to use Thanksgiving to unite Americans, Colman says.
The president released a Thanksgiving Proclamation for the last Thursday of November. He asked his “fellow-citizens” to thank God, as well as to ask for God's forgiveness. He also remembered widows, mourners, and others who had suffered in the war – but not “Pilgrims and Indians.”
Lincoln’s declaration did not have the force of law. However, many state governors accepted his call. From then on, a thanksgiving celebration became a yearly tradition in many parts of the country.
What about the Pilgrims and Indians?!
However, Thanksgiving was not yet a legal holiday. And it was still not related to “Pilgrims and Indians.”
Colman says that linkage began in the late 1800s. Around this time, the United States was changing again: More immigrants were arriving, many people were poor, and the country was becoming an international power. At the same time, stories about English settlers and Native Americans sharing a thanksgiving dinner together began appearing in books. Not all the details were the same. The dates were different, and some of the information was not correct. But the general story caught on.
Colman suggests that the story was effective because Americans at the time liked its messages. It was about survival during difficult times. It was about the tests strangers faced in a new place. And it was about kindness – especially the kindness of the English colonists sharing their feast.
Colman’s research shows that in the early 1900s, the story was repeated in classrooms, picture books, newspapers, and in theaters. Most Americans came to accept the story as the true origin of Thanksgiving.
Business interests carry the day
Then, in 1939, Thanksgiving changed. Business leaders noted that, that year, the month of November had five Thursdays. They also noted that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the winter holiday season. So business leaders asked then-President Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving a week earlier to permit an extra week of Christmas shopping.
It was a time of great economic hardship, and Roosevelt agreed.
At first, many people objected to the idea of changing the date. Some state lawmakers refused. Finally, the U.S. Congress stepped in. In 1941, they made the fourth Thursday in November – instead of the last – a legal holiday.
What does this story say about America?
Historian Penny Colman says the actual origins of Thanksgiving tell a different story about the holiday than the “Pilgrim and Indian” version. These origins show what she sees as the three parts of American culture: dynamism, pragmatism, and opportunism.
In other words, the supporters of the new holiday believed that things can and do change. Sarah Josepha Hale especially gave common-sense reasons for her idea. Finally, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and business leaders saw a chance to use the holiday for their own political and financial purposes.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
Kelly Jean Kelly reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Editor's Note: This story was first published in November 2018.
Words in This Story
origin - n. the point or place where something begins or is created : the source or cause of something
editor - n. a person who decides what is published
article - n. a piece of writing that is included in a magazine or newspaper
widow - n. a woman whose husband has died
shopping - n. the activity of visiting places where goods are sold in order to look at and buy things
dynamism - n. energy and a strong desire to make something happen
pragmatism - n. a reasonable and logical way of doing things or of thinking about problems that is based on dealing with specific situations instead of on ideas and theories
opportunism - n. trying to get an advantage or something valuable from a situation