1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

The Story Behind the Thanksgiving Holiday

By

Updated November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving Table

Image credit: jgroup / 123RF Stock Photo

Being thankful is a good thing, in more ways than one. For one, being thankful helps us focus on what is good in our lives. No one's life is perfect and we can choose whether we want to focus on what we find wrong or what we find is good. For another, it helps provide us with a positive outlook on life, which in turn can actually make us happier and healthier.

On Thanksgiving every year, most of us gather with family and friends, but often forget the idea of being thankful. We can help our children find ways to appreciate the holiday of Thanksgiving, and there are many! But one way to help them understand the holiday is to teach them its history. The story most of us learned is that the Pilgrims and the native American Indians joined together in a harvest feast. However, there is more to it than that!

Harvest Feasts

Unlike most modern humans, people in the past relied heavily on the harvest of their crops. They weren't able to run down to the local grocery store and buy food if their gardens didn't produce enough food. They weren't able to buy food from neighbors whose gardens might have produced more. They relied heavily on their crops and when the crops failed, people could, and often did, die. It's not surprising, therefore, that good harvests were celebrated with a feast.

Harvest festivals are celebrated around the world and have been for centuries. Even ancient cultures, such as those in Rome, Greece, Egypt, and China had harvest festivals. These festivals all one one thing in common: they gave thanks for a harvest that would ensure that the people had food to eat until the next harvest. Today, most of us want to give thanks for more than the food we eat, but without food, there is no life.

The Feasts of the Pilgrims

What we mostly hear about the Pilgrims is that in 1621, they shared their bountiful harvest with the Native American Indians in the first Thanksgiving. But the truth is that the harvest was not that plentiful. Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims present and one of two to write an existing account of that first harvest said that the wheat and Indian corn had grown well and the barley crop was "indifferently good. The "pease," however, Winslow said were "not worth the gathering." But the Pilgrims still had a harvest feast after Governor Bradford sent men out to hunt. Massasoyt, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, attended the feast, along with many of his tribe. They contributed five deer and together the Indians and the Pilgrim's feasted for three days.

But this was not the first real Thanksgiving, at least Winslow never mentioned anything about giving thanks. That first year the Pilgrim's spend in their new land was a hard one. Nearly half of them died. The following year was not much better. According to Governor Bradford's journal, the community had been set up as something of a commune. Everything was owned in common and everyone worked for the good of everyone else. Families received, not what they worked for, but what it was thought they needed. It turns out that this experiment in communal living did not work very well: the pilgrims were starving and things were not going well.

Governor Bradford realized that this system encouraged behavior that was actually destructive to the group. People became lazy and resentful. For two years, the Pilgrims had experienced famine. It didn't help that they also experienced a drought, but they had few stores to tide them over. As a result of the lack of productivity, Bradford changed the policy and gave each family a plot of their own land to care for. According to Bradford, the results were quite positive:

"This had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many."

And it certainly didn't hurt that more settlers and supplies arrived. In 1623, another feast was held, and it was the one that mentioned giving thanks.

Our Modern Thanksgiving Holiday

Even though Pilgrims gave thanks back in 1623, Thanksgiving was still not a national holiday. In fact, it wasn't actually celebrated every year by the Pilgrims or anyone else for that matter until much later, at least not nationally. There were numerous proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving, which contributed to the tradition of the holiday, but no national holiday. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November every year would be a national Thanksgiving Day, but the date was definitively set until President Roosevelt signed a bill into law in 1941 declaring that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November.

And since then, America has celebrated the day as a day to be thankful, not just for the food we eat, but for everything good that we have in our lives.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Gifted Children
  4. Family Life
  5. Holidays & Special Days
  6. Thanksgiving
  7. The Story Behind the Thanksgiving Holiday

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.