It’s a uniquely American holiday, and one that has, in recent years, been adulterated by commercialism (Black Friday and, now, even Black Thursday), but at its core, Thanksgiving is all about family and taking time to appreciate the blessings that we have received in life.
The savory flavors and aromas of a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and an afternoon perched in front of the television set rooting for your favorite team in an NFL playoff have become quintessential elements of this celebration.
But to truly understand the meaning of Thanksgiving, which, in the United States, falls on the fourth Thursday in November (the Canadians celebrate on the second Monday in October), you have to go back to the holiday’s historical roots.
Although some chroniclers maintain that the first Thanksgiving celebration took place in 1565 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, most traditional accounts hold that the commemorated festivities originally took place in 1621 at the site of the Plymouth Plantation, today known as the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
According to Charles C. Mann, author of the book “1491,” the native Massasoit tribe arrived with around 90 people, mostly young men, at the English settler’s traditional harvest feast.
After the pilgrim militia met with the unexpected visitors, the two groups sat down to share a meal and discuss strategic alliances.
Thanksgiving has been an annual tradition in the United States since the first president, George Washington, declared it a national day in 1789.
President Abraham Lincoln labeled it a U.S. holiday in 1863.
However, Thanksgiving did not become a federally observed day until the U.S. Congress declared it as such in 1941.
(In Canada, Parliament declared Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1957, choosing the October date to correspond with English and European harvest festivals, replete with cornucopias, pumpkins and wheat sheaves.)
In both the United States and Canada, Thanksgiving was initially created as a Christian religious observation to give thanks to God.
Today, however, the tradition has become a more secular festivity, aimed at bringing together families of all religious persuasions around a shared feast of indigenous foods.
While the specific delicacies of the original Thanksgiving meal have changed since the 17th century, seasonal dishes now include hometown favorites and regional cuisine, such as deep-fried turkey and porridge-like grits from the southern United States and warm apple pie and roasted squash from up north.
In early New England, however, the custom was corn kernels.
U.S. historian Bliss Forbush explained that North American settlers at Thanksgiving would place five kernels of corn at every plate — “as a reminder of those stern days in the first winter when the food of the Pilgrims was so depleted that only five kernels of corn were rationed to each individual at the time.”
Forbush added that the earliest settlers wanted to make certain that their children would keep alive the memory of the 63-day trip taken in the Mayflower ship from England to the Plymouth Plantation.
“They desired to keep alive the thought of that stern and rockbound coast, its inhospitable welcome, and the first terrible winter, which took such a toll of lives,” she wrote.
“The use of five kernels of corn placed on each plate was a fitting reminder of a heroic past. Symbolically, it may still serve as a useful means of recalling those great gifts for which we are grateful.”
Thanksgiving in general, she said, is “the expression of a deep feeling of gratitude by our people for the rich productivity of the land, a memorial of the dangers and hardships through which we have safely passed, and a fitting recognition of all that God in His goodness has bestowed upon us.”
Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]