The Meaning of Thanksgiving


Grace McClung and Nina Dorighi, Journalists

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday celebrated all over the United States since 1621. While it started as a harvest feast with the joined forces of the Native Americans and Pilgrims to celebrate their survival through the brutal winter, this holiday has evolved into a day completely different. Now everyone celebrates Thanksgiving differently depending on their values, beliefs and traditions. Though sometimes controversial, the modern meaning of Thanksgiving is ultimately about spending time with loved ones and giving thanks.

As explained in New England Today, 102 religious separatists boarded the Mayflower in hopes of escaping persecution and finding prosperity and land in the New World in 1620. For 66 days, these people endured poor conditions and cramped, uncomfortable spaces until they landed just off the tip of Cape Cod. One month later, they crossed the Massachusetts Bay and began to establish a village at Plymouth. The Pilgrims, as they are now known, struggled through their first brutal winter in the New World. Most stayed on ship and were exposed to illness and the cold. By Spring, only half of the crew and settlers had survived. Soon, they moved ashore and were greeted by an english-speaking Abenaki Indian who later brought them Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who could also speak English. During the Spring, he helped the settlers cultivate crops and catch fish and taught them about their new home. He also helped to form an alliance between them and the local Wampanoag tribe which was an alliance that lasted for many years and remains one of the few examples of a harmonious relationship between the Europeans and Native Americans. In November of 1621, the Pilgrims saw their first successful harvest and Governor William Bradford held a feast to celebrate. Unlike today, the feast consisted of mostly corn, squash, fish, seal, and swan. Without ovens and depleted resources, there were no pies or desserts like today. The festival lasted for 3 days and celebrated Spring successes and their new friendships with Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe. It wasn’t until 1863 when Thanksgiving was made a national holiday and traditions began to change. 

Historically, Thanksgiving was a time to celebrate the success of crops and the new friendship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. But as time has gone on, Thanksgiving has turned into a very different holiday celebrated for very different reasons. For most people, Thanksgiving is a day to reconnect with family and enjoy each other’s company. We are still reminded to be thankful, but often this is for who we have and how we’ve changed rather than recognizing the people who crossed the sea to be here. And while we are still connected to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner through some of the foods we eat, we don’t think about the effort it took to get it. Seal and swan no longer remain on the table, but some of the foods we eat are still similar to the Pilgrim’s feast. Vegetables like pumpkin, squash, and corn are still eaten today and turkey resembles fowl the Pilgrims would have eaten. But many people today don’t even pay attention to this tradition. For some, a sushi palooza with friends and family is the Thanksgiving norm. For others, eating favorite foods and watching cheesy Christmas movies is the perfect way to spend the evening. But no matter how people celebrate and what it means today, Thanksgiving remains as holiday to acknowledge friends and family and get together to celebrate each other. 

Thanksgiving is one of the most loved holidays in America, but there are still some claims that the way it is celebrated today is wrong. There are accusations that the history of Thanksgiving shouldn’t be celebrated annually due to the relationship between Indians and the Pilgrims at the time. It’s no lie that the history of the United States is laced with genocide and discrimination. And while there was a peaceful relationship between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims on that day, we seem to ignore the other times when Pilgrims murdered and discriminated against these American Indians. When we market this idea that Thanksgiving is when the Pilgrims befriended the Native Americans and they immediately had respectful relationships, you can’t help but think of how unrealistic it is. The argument is that the Europeans coming over to American Indian land shouldn’t be remembered for their act of kindness to the Indians, but their numerous acts of violence towards these native people. Another controversy with the modern Thanksgiving is the idea that this day has been over-commercialized. The argument says that Thanksgiving is supposed to be about being grateful for your family and friends, however it’s been turned into a cesspool of capitalism and marketing. Its now a materialistic event for magazines and new products, where the day after Thanksgiving is dedicated to the biggest sales in the holiday season. Thanksgiving is marketed as the gateway to Christmas, so as soon as the family time is over, Americans are getting in fights and stampeding over each other for cheap prices on holiday finds. Thanksgiving has lost its initial integrity of giving thanks, and now has a completely different intent. Even if everyone has a different meaning associated with the holiday, the fact that America has marketed it into economic growth cannot be ignored. 

Thanksgiving has had different meanings throughout history and has been celebrated with different intent all over the United states. The question is, what is the right way to celebrate it? The good thing about Thanksgiving is that people can vary their traditions and the way the celebrate it in order to make it apply to their beliefs and family. If you want to celebrate the religious side of it, or just honor the day the Pilgrims and American Indians came together feast, you can. If you don’t believe in Thanksgiving at all you can choose not to celebrate it, or you can use it as a day to give thanks to the things in your life that are important to you. The holiday of Thanksgiving is very flexible which is why the meaning of Thanksgiving varies with each family that celebrates it.