Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow historians! Despite many of us still having not finished our Halloween candy, turkey day is just a week away, bringing an endless supply of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the occasional uncomfortable family dinner table conversation.
In a special edition of This Week in History, we will take a look at the real story behind Thanksgiving, debunk several myths we’ve been misled to believe and uncover the truths behind the most puzzling holiday traditions. So let’s dive in!
In 1621, exactly 400 years ago, the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.
We all know the legend: the Pilgrims came to the “New World” to escape religious persecution in England, and though they faced hardships during their first year at Plymouth Plantation, the “friendly Indians” helped them farm and thus have a successful harvest.
So there are some truths to this. Yes, most Pilgrims — Protestant separatists from Plymouth, England — came to North America in the fall of 1620 to establish a religious haven, though some Pilgrims made the voyage just to make money and own their own land.
The Wampanoags, among several other Native American groups, had inhabited the area for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrams arrival. To better defend themselves against their rival, the Narragansetts, the Wampanoags signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrams.
The “First Thanksgiving” was not a one-day affair, but rather a three-day festival that included a feast, hunting and other forms of entertainment, with venison, fish and corn most likely on the menu. Because the Pilgrims’ sugar stash was most likely eaten on the Mayflower and potatoes had not yet reached New England, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie were not served at the “First Thanksgiving.”
At the time, the concept of Thanksgiving was not unique. In ancient times, Egyptians and Romans celebrated good harvests in the fall with feasts and rituals to thank their deities for their health and prosperity. Christians followed suit, and thus, the tradition dates back much further than 1621.
This harvest festival marked the beginning of a 50-year peacetime between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. Peace was short-lived though, as 50 years of English expansion into Wampanoag territory pushed the tribes to their breaking point. Metacom, who adopted the English name Philip, united the Wampanoags, Narragansetts and smaller tribes to retaliate against European encroachment in what would be called “King Phillip’s War.” In the end, colonists killed thousands of the Wampanoag and Narragansett, decimating a population already struggling against European diseases. The colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were subsequently built on land stolen from these groups, among others, despite their feast just five decades prior.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.
While the “First Thanksgiving” occurred in the 17th century, the first legal Thanksgiving occurred during the Civil War in an attempt by the president to bring Americans together despite the bitter conflict that divided them.
Lincoln was primarily heeding the request of author Sarah Josepha Hale, known for writing the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For 36 years, Hale wrote letters to senators, governors and presidents advocating for the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Fun fact: She also published several recipes for preparing turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie in magazines that circulated throughout the Northeast and Midwest, so you can think of Mrs. Hale every time you sit down for a meal of the Thanksgiving staples.
In 1924, 97 years ago, the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marched down the streets of Midtown Manhattan.
The 1920s — or rather the Roaring 20s — was an unprecedented time of wealth and glamour for the U.S.. Department stores were booming as commercialism and consumerism came of age in the modern era, and none were more dominant than Macy’s Department Store.
Macy’s Herald Square location on 34th Street in New York expanded to cover an entire city block, becoming the largest department store in the world. To celebrate, Macy’s held a six-mile parade on Thanksgiving Day, beginning far north in Harlem and ending in front of their flagship store. The parade was a smashing success and began a new holiday tradition, gathering thousands of spectators, some of whom even joined in the parade as it made its way downtown.
By the late 1940s, TV tried to capture the magic, with Macy’s granting NBC the exclusive right to film their extravaganza. The balloons proved particularly popular with TV audiences since they were easier for at-home viewers to see. They have been a parade staple ever since.
In the 1950s and 60s, more than 60 years ago, the term “Black Friday” was popularized in the U.S. because of the Philadelphia Police Department.
The day after Thanksgiving had been considered the beginning of the Christmas shopping season since the holiday’s enshrinement into federal law. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even tried to move Thanksgiving a week earlier to give retail stores a bigger sales boost during the Great Depression. Though this decision did not stick, the sentiment stuck, and shoppers began swarming the stores the day after Thanksgiving.
Philadelphia PD affectionately called the day, “Black Friday” because nobody wanted to direct traffic on days full of traffic jams and crowded sidewalks. Not exactly the most endearing origin story, but newspaper writers and advertisement executives soon capitalized on the name as a day full of doorbusters, deals and chaos.
Wow, that was a lot! I will end by wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good week!