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Dumb Question Answered… 25, November 2007

Posted by babychaos in General Wittering.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve got a burning question exacerbated by use of the internet, which buns brighter every year… That is, where does Thanksgiving come from? Because I’m not American but most other internet users are, this has fascinated me for some time.

Living as I do, in Silicone Fen, home of super-geeks from around the world, there are nameless thousands of Americans right here on my doorstep to ask – not to mention the 27,000 service personnel 20 miles up the road. I have asked, copiously because I haven’t the first clue and I’d be really intrigued to know. However, so far, none of them seem to know or at least, be prepared to tell me, presumably because it’s so obvious to them that it’s like somebody asking me what Christmas is about, or maybe they think I’m taking the piss or too dumb for words but the answer is usually something non-committal like this.

“Uh… it’s a day when you celebrate your family, so all families everywhere try to get together and have a meal* together.”

Well yeh, I know that’s what people actually do but why? Thus far, my American friends have been seriously non-commital about elucidating further…

So now… for all you British people out there who, like me, wondered what an earth it was all about – other than getting all the guilt about trying to visit every member of your family (and failing) at Christmas out of the way first so you can actually enjoy it – I give you, with a lot of help from my friends here the origin of Thanksgiving.

Basically, it appears to come from a cross between a conventional harvest festival and the relief of the Pilgrim Fathers when, after serious hardship which had whittled their numbers down from 105 to 43, they finally realised their settlement was going to make it.

The first feast lasted 3 days and celebrated their first harvest – 1621 – which, thanks to a little help from their native American friends, was abundant. At this point they were on good terms with the indigenous population, 91 native Americans were invited.

Next year, no feast but things carried on ticking over nicely until year three when a grim drought looked set to put the kybosh on their harvest and therefore, by default, them. They gathered to pray for rain and when it came the next day, Governor William Bradford declared another day of thanksgiving, they invited their indian friends and once again, they had a big slap up feast to celebrate.

After this, nothing much happened until 1676 in Charleston, Mass, when the town, looking for a means to give thanks for the way their community was prospering declared June 29th was a day of thanksgiving.

Again, nothing much happened, subsequently, until one year after the war of independence, 1777, when there was another Thanksgiving day this time, in grateful acknowledgement for independence and victory in the war against those pesky limeys. Ah ha! I’m beginning to understand some of the reticence at coming forward with an explanation… that and the fact it’s even more complicated than the origins of the kilt… and we’re only half way through…

George Washington declared a thanksgiving day, to mark the deliverance of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1789 but it still didn’t really catch on, dissenters included Thomas Jefferson. So, eventually, in 1817, the state of New York, started to celebrate Thanksgiving every year and other states followed suit. This still wasn’t enough though.

It was up to a lady called Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor who enjoyed the dubious notoriety of being the author of “Mary had a Little Lamb” who, using the power of PR, persuaded the nation to take it to their hearts as a national holiday. It was her life’s work and she wrote editorials promoting it in the delightfully quaintly named “Boston Ladies’ Magazine” and “Godey’s Lady’s Book”.

By 1863 President Lincoln could stand it no more and gave in, declaring the third Thursday in November as Thanksgiving day, a national holiday. After that, Franklin D Roosevelt tried to mess with it once – something about more shopping days before Christmas – but nobody was having that and the day remained fixed.

So there we have it. Hoorah! Now I know and if you’re from any other nation, so do you, too!

*Deep-fried turkey according to British TV chef, Heston Bluminthal (yikes that can’t be true).



1. extrapreneur - 25, November 2007

relax, I’m British too though I do see where you’re coming from, there are a lot of American blogs out there. Try going on a British one for a change – check out my blog at http://www.extrapreneur.com

2. extrapreneur - 25, November 2007

sorry, my mistake, check out my blog at http://www.extrapreneur.wordpress.com
I’m not a nice simple dot com yet…

3. babychaos - 25, November 2007

Hello Extrapreneur, nice to meet you – fear not, I do read lots of British blogs, too – it’s more the sites I go on for my business that seem to be populated solely by people from the US, or the odd Australian, places like Etsy, Zazzle, cafe press, illustration mundo et al which don’t seem to have UK versions or many UK users. Anyhoo… thank you for introducing me to another one!



4. Kat - 25, November 2007

Yeah, we Aussies are a bit odd. 😉 One British celebration I’ve always wanted to know more about is Guy Fawkes Day (thank you, Enid Blyton, for intriguing me with Guy Fawkes fireworks, ginger beer and heath).

5. Mrs. Nicklebee - 25, November 2007

That’s not a dumb question at all!

Do you want to know the reason most Americans can’t answer the question, “What is Thanksgiving?” It is because, unless they have gone to a small school in “middle America”, they have not been taught the Christian background surrounding that time. PC-leaning government schools almost never talk about the documented fact that the pilgrims, referred to as separatists in the beginning, were Christians and relied heavily upon the God of the Bible to provide for them before their journey ever began. They came here to escape religious persecution, mostly from the gov’t.

A very good book about the historical events surrounding the first Thanksgiving celebrations is The Light and the Glory by David Manuel and Peter Marshall.

6. babychaos - 25, November 2007

Hey Mrs N, thanks for the heads up, I knew the first “Thanksgiving” was something to do with the Pilgrim Fathers but not how or why. I just found a little bit more about it in Bill Bryson’s book about language, too. Kat, since you asked… check out tomorrow’s post!



7. Joe Drinker - 25, November 2007

A very well-researched answer! I can understand some people being hesitant to let you in on the why, especially since the origin involved some bad blood between our two countries, but I also think a lot of people don’t really know much about the holiday. Most people I know link it to the earlier instances, without taking into account the other events in the time line, such as the war for independence or the famous Boston Tea Party.

Sad to say, most young Americans sleep through history class.

8. Steff - 26, November 2007

What I miss about Thanksgiving (as an American who has lived in the U.K. for six years), is the sense of occasion it gives to the rest of the holidays – as you mentioned, you get much of the extended family duties out of the way, joyous as they are(!) And so Christmas tends to be rather more relaxed – the meal isn’t as massive as you’re still haunted by the memory of Thanksgiving leftovers, plus it’s sort of bad form in America for the Christmas shilling/adverts to get going much before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving creates a nice bookend, it signals the beginning of the holidays without people already being sick of them as they can be in Britain with the Christmas things on sale by Halloween in most places now. If it snows on Thanksgiving, which it sometimes does in New England esp., it’s kind of like a good omen for the holidays (people weirdly like snow in America, because we plow our roads perhaps?!). I dunno. What I miss are the little things – Macy’s Parade, the playing of the 20 minute Arlo Guthrie classic “Alice’s Restaurant”on the radio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_7C0QGkiVo, weird random things that despite the seeming preponderence of American culture are hard to explain and don’t really have much to do with pilgrims or Native Americans! 🙂

9. babychaos - 26, November 2007

Ah yes, I can just imagine it, no sleigh bells in supermarket ads until now, no bloody Curry’s ads until now, that stupid plank not selling hideous and over priced sofas until now and all the scary bit of Christmas the guilt and the stuff I dread, dealt with now so I could spend Christmas in my own home just for sodding once well, ok I’ve managed it twice but that’s not great going in 12 years of marriage, is it! 😉

Ah well, hey ho…



10. noble savage - 26, November 2007

Heh heh, sorry that I didn’t give you the explanation you asked for on Thanksgiving, I was up to my elbows in turkey and stuffing and have been on the go ever since then. I’m impressed that you did your research though! I think a reason some Americans might not go into detail about it is because a) there are numerous conflicting ‘histories’ of the holiday and no one seems absolutely sure which one is correct, b) they might be embarrassed or hesitant to mention it because many people use Thanksgiving as a launching pad to berate America’s citizens for its appalling treatment of the indigenous people (Native Americans) back then and c) some people are just idiots and have no clue why we celebrate it and truly think it’s just ‘a day to eat turkey’.

So there you have it!

11. babychaos - 27, November 2007

Aw no worries me dear, looking at the length of the article I’d have wilted at the idea of explaining it, I thought the origins were something snappy, you know like Christmas!



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