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Warren Wilson College
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P.O. Box 9000
Asheville, NC 28815-9000

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The Swannanoa Journal - Origins of Thanksgiving

By Casey Doyle

 

Audio Recording

 

Text:

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are filled with picturesque scenes: waking up early to cook breakfast and watch the Macy’s day parade with my parents and sister, going to my grandparents house, welcomed by a roaring fire and the scent of turkey roasting and stuffing baking, feasting on the delicious meal at my grandmother’s elegant dining room table complete with her finest china and candelabras, helping my mother and grandmother clean up the messy kitchen splattered with grease and gravy,  and eventually curling up in a chair to fall asleep in the warm, rustic family room.

As I got older though, Thanksgivings changed. The excitement surrounding the holiday diminished. My grandmother grew too old to entertain, and now we hold the holiday at my house, which does not have the same grandeur as my grandparents; no fireplace, no elegant dining room table. As I child I looked forward to Thanksgiving, the excitement I had the night before would keep me awake. Today,  while I look at the holiday as a time to eat good food and be with family, I also realize the truths behind it, making it less of a day for excitement than a day for hypocrisy.

Most of us, as we are taught in elementary school, think of the first Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock held in 1621. We are told that the Pilgrims created Thanksgiving to show their appreciation for the crops they successfully grew with the help of the Wampanoag Native Americans. While the pilgrims did celebrate community triumph during hardship, we tend to neglect the corruption of European Colonization that the Pilgrims contributed to, subsequently stealing land, spreading small pox, and massacring countless Native Americans. To alter public perception of our first Thanksgiving even further, after the feast at Plymouth, Thanksgiving was not regularly celebrated across the nation until 1863, when Lincoln declared it a national holiday.

While some other presidents did declare a day of observation for the holiday, like George Washington in 1789, the holiday was not celebrated until Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be, as his Thanksgiving Day proclamation states, the “day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Unfortunately, our national day of thanks is rooted in Christianity despite our country’s supposed separation of church and state. It was for this reason that Thomas Jefferson refused to proclaim the holiday during his presidency. Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to boost moral during the civil war and did so under the pressure of Sarah Josepha Hale, dubbed the mother of Thanksgiving. She wrote that Thanksgiving should be a day when “the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.” The creation of the national holiday as we know it was based on the principle of thanking the Christian God- so much for being thankful for freedom of religion.

Then, in 1941 Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving; instead of it being the last Thursday of every month, he made it the fourth Thursday to increase the length of the holiday shopping season. Perhaps this is where the Thanksgiving weekend shopping phenomenon originated, as consumers illustrate the epitome of greed rather than a spirit of thanks.

However, I feel that Thanksgiving is still a holiday worth celebrating, despite the corruption lurking in its past. Despite any hypocrisy, I acknowledge that it is a time for optimism and celebrating what you do have, especially in a world that seems to be going awry. Just like the pilgrims after their harsh winter, or the public during the Civil War, it is important to realize that tough times can bring about new appreciation. I am thankful for the evolution of my attitude towards the holiday. While it was fun as a child to celebrate the holiday with great merriment, I was ignorant of our country’s less than free and equal past. I am now thankful to be aware of both our past and current corruption and am thankful that many others are aware of this. On this Thanksgiving in particular, my first at Warren Wilson College, I am thankful to be in an environment where young people are truly aware of past and present injustices and actively pursue resolution. I am thankful to be in a place that fosters a spirit of changing the world so that there is more to be thankful for in the future.