Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed a national holiday during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history: 1863, during the time of the Civil War. How did Thanksgiving come to be one of the most important celebrations in the United States? Let’s take a little trip back in history, shall we?:
It’s September 1620. A ship called the Mayflower leaves Plymouth, England. Religious liberty and a freedom to be landowners is at the forefront of the minds of its 102 passengers. This would not be an easy journey by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, these brave souls would endure some of the most treacherous conditions known to man. After a dangerous journey that spanned 66 days, they planted themselves near the edge of Cape Cod; their original plan was to arrive at the Hudson River. A month later, the passengers of the Mayflower would settle their own village at Plymouth.
The colonists aboard the Mayflower battled everything from freezing temperatures to outbreaks of horrible disease. Half of the group would succumb to disease before spring. In March of that year, the remaining crew reached land where they would be greeted by someone they certainly did not expect: an Abenaki Native American who would greet them in their native English.
After meeting the colonists, the Native American would leave them and return days later with another Native American. Some of you may have heard of him before. His name was Squanto. This meeting with Squanto would prove to be one of the most fruitful meetings in human history, for it gave the colonists the opportunity to learn how to grow their own crops, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish, and how to identify poisonous plants.
Why is Thanksgiving celebrated in November? Well, in November of 1621, after the colonists successfully harvested their first corn, Governor William Bradford organized a feast in which he invited Native Americans from various tribes to eat with the colonists. Additionally, at the height of the Civil War in 1863, Abraham Lincoln wanted to bring the country together. In his proclamation, he wanted all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife and to “heal the wounds of the nation”. He scheduled a Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November.
While there are some Native Americans who strongly disagree with how the history and significance and Thanksgiving is taught to Americans due to the, oftentimes, violent history between Native Americans and European settlers, it is important to remember that through no time in human history has there ever been conflict between human beings. In fact, people engaging in violent conflict is well-documented. From the times of the Caesars to when the Scottish people fought for their freedom against the English crown, it was clear that, although leaders did their best to avoid armed conflict, bloodshed was unavoidable. The conflict between the Native Americans and European settlers was not an unusual occurrence. Human beings have fought amongst each other for centuries. What is important to remember is how peoples from completely different backgrounds were able to put their differences aside and come together to celebrate what they had in common: a mutual need for trade, land, negotiations, and yes, the absence of armed conflict. The survival and prosperity of their individual tribes was more important.
We are living in uncertain times. The outbreak of the Coronavirus has tested us as Americans, challenging the very ideals we so strongly hold in our hearts. This Thanksgiving, may we all take a moment to remember what brings us together, what we have in common and what values we all share as members of this great country. We have an opportunity to remind ourselves of what it truly means to be an American. It’s not something that we should ever take for granted.