A Project for Better Journalism chapter

The tradition of Thanksgiving

Tomorrow evening, families around the country will gather in dining rooms to feast and to be thankful for what they have in their lives. When did it all start?

The Native Americans were essential in helping the Pilgrims survive in a land with which they were quite unfamiliar. Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag Indians who had lived in London, was an interpreter between the Pilgrims of the Plymouth plantation and Massasoit, a ruler of the Wampanoags. Squanto taught the newcomers skills such as burying dead fish with crops to act as fertilizer, as well as other important skills that the pilgrims never would have survived without in the new land.

In November of 1621, one year after they had landed, the Pilgrims celebrated a bountiful autumn harvest with the Wampanoags. They never called it “Thanksgiving,” though they celebrated with a large feast with duck, geese, cod, lobster, deer and stews.

Turkey is a staple of the modern Thanksgiving meal, but it hasn’t always been that way. While it is possible that wild turkey was on the menu in 1691, it looked nothing like turkey does today, which has been bred to be as large as possible.

The Thirteen Colonies carried this tradition forward. Local state governments would declare days for giving thanks and to celebrate plentiful harvests or victorious battles, mainly as a religious practice started by the early American Puritans.

As the country began to fall into the tumult of the Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale began to push for the creation of a national day of thanksgiving to help unify the broken country. And in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of each November as Thanksgiving Day, finally making the celebration official.

In 1939, President Franklin D Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday of every month, which extended the Christmas shopping season as it was then considered inappropriate to advertise Christmas goods before Thanksgiving.

The foods and traditions have changed considerably over the years, but the core essence remains; to be thankful for what we have. Whatever is on the menu, whoever is in attendance, Thanksgiving is a tradition that puts the idea of gratitude into practice.