In modern America, Thanksgiving has come to be associated with many things: family gatherings, NFL games, and days off school all come to mind.
And yet before all these things, before the National Football League, before the fourth Thursday in November became a national holiday, before the United States itself was an independent country, Thanksgiving existed – just in a different form.
Ann Berry, executive director for The Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum located in Plymouth, Mass., noted that a specific set annual holiday was not what the original Thanksgiving was about.
“In the early 17th century, a Day of Thanksgiving was declared by a religious leader as a time for contemplation, prayer and, often, fasting in response to a special act of Divine Providence – rain after a drought for example,” said Berry in an interview with The Christian Post.
“There were also civilly declared Days of Thanksgiving in response to an event such as a victory in battle or the end of war. Several were declared in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies.”
Berry explained that the modern American holiday is “a combination of the story of the Pilgrims' harvest feast and several centuries of the United States creating its own history.”
Regarding the historical event in 1621, where Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe sat down and feasted for three days, there were only two firsthand accounts.
The account of Edward Winslow, said Berry, was the more detailed of the two. It described leisure events like shooting guns and the diners eating deer for the main course instead of turkey.
The actual food that was eaten at the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is just one of several misconceptions popular culture has about the event, writes History News Network Editor Rick Shenkman.
In an article titled “Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving,” Shenkman lays out several assumptions that are incorrect, including that the Pilgrims were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Spanish Conquistadors arriving in Texas celebrated a day of thanks in 1598, and Berkeley Plantation of Virginia gave thanks and feasted in 1619, two years before Plymouth.
Shenkman also noted that the first national observation of Thanksgiving, issued for August and November 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, did not mention the Pilgrims.
“The Pilgrims, incidentally, didn't become part of the holiday until late in the nineteenth century. Until then, Thanksgiving was simply a day of thanks, not a day to remember the Pilgrims,” wrote Shenkman.
While many Americans celebrate the day of thanks, some believe Thanksgiving to have a darker theme of being the beginning of the decline of Amer-Indian culture due to European colonization.
“There is no doubt that the Native Americans across this country experienced extreme hardship with the coming of the Europeans,” said Berry.
“It is interesting to note, however, that the first generation of settlers in Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag they encountered coexisted fairly peacefully for a number of years.”
Berry explained that the future tensions between the Wampanoag and the settlers would not come until a generation later.
“As time passed and the second generation of leaders on both sides came into power, relations deteriorated and the native people were decimated,” said Berry.
“In the fall of 1621, this was in the future and, as Edward Winslow reported, they feasted together for three days.”
“So the ‘First Thanksgiving’ has become a symbolic event for everyone in the United States – holding different meanings depending on your perspective.”