For years, American students have been taught that Thanksgiving is a tradition dating back to when the Native Americans and Pilgrims met in unity and friendship at Plymouth Rock to celebrate the harvest.
In reality, the history of the holiday is more complicated, with our modern celebration having its roots in the Civil War, according to Chris Lewis, an American Studies instructor at the University of Colorado.
The original feast in 1621 and subsequent celebrations through the American Revolution bore little resemblance to what we think of today as Thanksgiving, Lewis said. In fact, it was more similar to the German holiday Oktoberfest, taking place in late September or early October to celebrate the year’s harvest.
Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, to celebrate the Union victories and honor the war dead, Lewis said. Officials sent a feast to troops in the field, featuring turkey, cranberries and other now-familiar staples.
The holiday grew in meaning and importance following the Great Depression and World War II, when it became a catalyst to unite the country and celebrate its values, Lewis said. Several presidents gave Thanksgiving addresses charging the country to come together through a common feast.
“It’s mainly been about bringing the country together through the sharing of bounty and land,” Lewis said. One way Thanksgiving has been used to celebrate American values and bring its people together is through the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans, which Lewis says is more myth than truth.
“They tolerated more than liked each other,” he said. “The story of different groups coming together and sharing the same land really isn’t true. Thousands of Indians were put into slavery and others on reservations, and it was said that Indians and Anglos couldn’t share the same society.
“The story we know is more cultural myth. It’s an interesting story, it makes us feel good about ourselves. We’re teaching our children the values we want to aspire to.”
Lewis said the current holiday has elements of both myth and tradition.
“Our Thanksgiving holiday is a kind of cultural ritual that embodies both real people and real history but with cultural symbolism and mythology,” he said.
He added that American society today more closely resembles the idealized values taught in the Thanksgiving story.
“Today, we are a multicultural people learning to live with each other,” he said. “There is hope that in the 21st century the larger meaning of the holiday can be realized.”