Series Blog

From the Times to the Tomes: An Abridged History of Thanksgiving

Every Thanksgiving the same argument erupts at my house over one of the most “traditional” condiments in the typical Thanksgiving feast: the cranberry sauce. It goes like this: someone slaves over a stove for several hours perfecting and then chilling a usually delicious portion of the home-made stuff, soft ripened cranberries in a sauce sweetened with ample portions of sugar, and in some instances honey. Walnuts are added, maybe, to provide a little texture. "It was a labor of love, you know," we’re all told after someone asks, “Where’s the traditional cranberry sauce?” You know, the real stuff—the stuff with the ridges and the texture of day old oysters—that unmistakable Thanksgiving staple in a can. And so, the argument begins between tradition and traditional.

So it goes with many American holidays: tradition, contemporary tastes and history are in a constant struggle for the hearts and minds of the people. In regards to Thanksgiving, our film After the Mayflower, part of our We Shall Remain mini-series that recently had an encore presentation this past October, explores the “original” celebration myth between the Plymouth colonists and their neighbors the Wampanoag. You can watch the whole film to get a better look at the complex political nature of the first Thanksgiving. But what about the tradition of the holiday itself, that to most seems to have always resided on the last Thursday in November since forever?

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President Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving an annual holiday in its present location on the calendar in 1863, to celebrate a particularly good summer for the Union campaign in the Civil War and stressed the gift of the nation’s continued existence despite such a brutal conflict. He also stressed the Godly nature of the country and its victories, proclaiming that, “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” (a notion he further stressed by adding the motto “In God We Trust” to the two-cent coin a year later). You can see the original proclamation as it was printed in the New York Times here. From then on, with only a minor glitch during the FDR’s Presidency (see: Franksgiving, one of my favorite portmanteaus) the holiday has remained in the same spot, although its celebration has lost some of its religious fervor. Canned cranberry sauce came in-between, being introduced commercially in 1912, I assume, to much fanfare. However, the idea of a Thanksgiving was not a uniquely American invention, no matter how much we’ve adopted the idea with more zeal, it seems, than any other culture.

Before its present incarnation as a yearly American event, Thanksgivings were holidays declared at nearly any time of the year (although mostly to coincide with national victories, religious celebrations or harvest festivals). These sorts of celebrations are common to many different cultures, from feasts to celebrate the ending of fasts in Islamic communities, to Irish, Scottish and English harvest celebrations.

It’s no wonder Thanksgiving has been adopted as a national celebration in the United States. Across the country families come together to celebrate with American traditions we’ve come to associate with the holiday. We recall the Plymouth colonist’s first Thanksgiving with its traditional harvest foods and the possibility of peaceful cooperation in the world. But no matter how you celebrate, remember to be thankful for the people around you, especially when they make homemade cranberry sauce, but forget the kind in the can.

Sean Cleary is a blogger for Inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and a member of the Communications team, where he also assembles AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s weekly newsletter.