The Evolution of Thanksgiving

Far from being a crystalized set observance, Thanksgiving in America has been a holiday that has changed considerably from how it was initially celebrated.

There have been obvious minor changes: sports events on TV rather than game hunting, turkey as the main course rather than venison, and the manifestation of the major parade sponsored by Macy's.

Yet, from 1621 until 2012, the notion of Thanksgiving also underwent fundamental changes in definition, with the modern American holiday being far removed from its 17th century ancestor. Linford D. Fisher, assistant professor at the Department of History of Brown University, told The Christian Post that the modern Thanksgiving is more a product of the 1800s than the 1600s.

"One piece of this progression is when Sarah Hale of Newport, R.I. – a writer, activist, and mother –begins to campaign for a national holiday that incorporates feasting and giving thanks," said Fisher.

"This was also a time when New Englanders were recovering their Puritan roots (Plymouth Rock was dedicated in 1824, for example), so this recovery of Thanksgiving as an older tradition ties in with that as well."

For the 17th century, Fisher told CP that the Thanksgiving event was actually a combination of two occasions, one being the harvest festival and the other a ritual day of thanks, which was "a common feature of early modern European Christian religious life."

"As practiced by most English colonists, the harvest festival would have been a day of rejoicing, eating, and spending time as a community together," said Fisher.

"A day of thanksgiving, on the other hand, had a more somber tone, and perhaps would have even involved prayer, fasting, and a sermon. Colonies and towns all across British North America would have celebrated both of these rituals over time."

Before being made a national holiday by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941, Thanksgiving could appear at any time in the calendar year. Ann Berry, executive director for The Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum located in Plymouth, Mass., told CP in an earlier interview about this flexibility.

"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.

"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."

As to contrasting the Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving and modern Thanksgiving, Fisher explained that "several things stick out."

"First, the almost de facto cultural expectation of not just abundance, but gluttonous overabundance, seems to be the most contradictory differences between the two messages. In 1621 they were glad to have survived; in 2012 we celebrate our successes and high standards of living in our full tables," said Fisher.

"Second, in 1621 there was a more intense cultural focus on the Christian God as the source of this survival. In 2012, thanks almost seems to be redirected in a patriotic way towards the United States itself."

When asked by CP about a consistent theme of Thanksgiving from 1621 to 2012, Fisher said he believed it was "the act of giving thanks itself."

"The act of giving thanks itself, as a special day and time set aside, is the most in harmony with the various manifestations of thanksgivings down through American history," said Fisher.