When you hear the word “Thanksgiving”, it’s hard not to think about a sizzling turkey, mashed potatoes, and most importantly, family. However, have you ever wondered when was the first Thanksgiving celebrated?
You might have if you are reading this right now.
Well, starting with the basic definition; thanksgiving is a federal holiday that is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is all about getting together with your family and friends to give thanks and show gratitude. People celebrate the holiday with their loved ones over luxurious feasts of dishes of mashed potatoes, turkey, and pies. Followed by football games and lots of chatter, Thanksgiving sets the mood for the holiday season. People living far away from their families in different cities and towns travel across to reunite with their family members. Despite the enthusiastic celebration of Thanksgiving, very few people are aware of the origin story of Thanksgiving when was the first Thanksgiving celebrated?
If you are curious about the origin and story behind the favorite holiday, then here is a quick history lesson for you.
Myths about thanksgiving
From the 1920s, the children are told the first thanksgiving was celebrated as a peaceful and friendly meal shared between the natives and the pilgrims. The meal was shared to celebrate the success of the English settlement in Plymouth in 1621. While many Americans regard this as the basis of this holiday, this is not the truth. This idea does have colors of truth but it is not the complete picture. The answer to a simple question; "when was the first thanksgiving celebrated?" is much more complicated than anticipated. It is twisted; the history of thanksgiving.
The first Thanksgiving indicates the alliance between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, which brought about peace and friendship between the two cultures. Very few people are aware of the events that took place after the first Thanksgiving of 1621. We have been celebrating this holiday like our ancestors did, without indulging in the narrative. But it’s high time we break the myths and shatter this illusion that the “wholesome” story of the first Thanksgiving was created.
The Real History of Thanksgiving
The usually told history of Thanksgiving is an account of how pilgrims and Americans gathered together to share a meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1621, the members of a persecuted puritan sect in England or as called, pilgrims came to the North American continent. A year later, they celebrated surviving their first winter there. However, what they called Thanksgiving was based on fasting and prayers and it was probably held in March.
Anyways, come autumn, the pilgrims rejoiced again as a contemporary Thanksgiving to show their gratitude for a bountiful harvest. This was courtesy of the Wampanoag tribe who taught them the basic skills to survive. Unfortunately, close to no information exists about this seasonal thanksgiving. Moreover, in reality, the peace didn't last between the English settlers and their once-upon-a-time allies Wampanoag tribe. The two became enemies a generation after the first thanksgiving in 1621 and a devastating war started to brew that was later followed by bloody massacres.
The war between Wampanoag and English Settlers
Fast-forwarding to 1637, a darker and bloodier side of the first thanksgiving came to the surface. Massasoit, the paramount chief of Wampanoag, made a pact with English settlers during the early Plymouth establishment and befriended them to stand against French and other tribes.
The alliance, however, didn't last long and the days of peace eventually met with a destructive end.
When thousand of English colonists came into the region, the Plymouth authorities began taking asserting control over the Wampanoag life. The spread of a disease that colonists referred to as "Indian Fever”, reduced the American population to 10%. Therefore, by the time, Massasoit’s son, King Philip inherited the leadership; the relations between the two tribes had collapsed completely.
King Phillip’s war began when few men of Metacomet were killed for the murder of Christian convert John Sassamon. To this, Wampanoag responded by doing destructive raids, and eventually, the English Confederation announced the war in 1675.
How Thanksgiving Became A National Holiday?
In 1789, the first attempts were made to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. President George Washington advocated for the day to show gratitude for the end of the brutal and revolutionary war. However, it was not until 1863 when thanksgiving officially made to the calendar as a holiday. The holiday was meant to heal the people from the injuries of the civil war.
In the beginning, the holiday had nothing to with the celebratory festival held by pilgrims in 1621. As immigrants arrive in the United States, protestant Americans fought for a stronger national identity. Thus the peaceful story of the pilgrims and Native American dinner was born. While the story focused on cultural and religious values, it did not manage to acknowledge the torn relationship between Native Americans and colonists.
Well, you can see how complex of a history this holiday has. This is the reason some Native Americans do not celebrate these holidays. To you, they might just be missing a turkey and a glorious meal but for them, it is a national day of mourning and remembrance which was established in 1970. All the other Americans on a separate hand are free to celebrate the harvest and offer thanks— similar to how it was done by their ancestors without knowing the narrative behind it.
It is clear from history that while the origin of the first Thanksgiving is had its roots in the meal shared for the successful harvest; true Thanksgiving is not just about that. The origin of the holiday is bloodier and darker than we know. The children are told the simple and comprehensible story of the peaceful celebratory meal with turkeys, lambs, and oysters on the menu.
This is how the first Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks and toast for the successful harvest. However, the history of this holiday is still as disputed as the past.