Thanksgiving’s grain of truth

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“Our Thanksgiving holiday is a kind of cultural ritual that embodies both real people and real history but with cultural symbolism and mythology,” says Chris Lewis. “We are not really celebrating the real actors and the real characters, we’re celebrating or re-enacting a union between Indians and English peoples that we would like to think somehow symbolizes the hope of American society and the hope of freedom and unity in that society.”

U. COLORADO (US)—The oft-told story of the Pilgrims and the Indians celebrating and befriending each other is more myth than truth, says scholar Chris Lewis. The two groups tolerated each other out of necessity.

What is considered to be the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Plantation in about 1621, between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims, was not the celebration of thanks as we think of it today, says Lewis, an American studies instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Instead, it was a celebration of the annual harvest and it most likely took place in late September.

“It happened not in our traditional Thanksgiving month but earlier in the harvest season, probably mid-to-late September,” adds Lewis. “The first Thanksgiving is in fact a celebration of the harvest and instead of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes, they ate venison, wild fowl, and corn.”

Lewis says the relationship between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims was more about self-preservation than comradeship.

The Wampanoag wanted to form a military and political alliance with the Pilgrims “because they were afraid of the growing strength of the competing tribe, the Narragansetts,” he says. Likewise, the Pilgrims needed the help of the Wampanoag to harvest crops and survive the winters.

What Lewis finds interesting is that the major origin of the holiday, which is Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a day of thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War to celebrate Union victories and to pray for the troops in the field, is not associated with the Civil War and a divided country, but rather an obscure unity between Indians and New England settlers.

“What I like to tell my students is that our Thanksgiving holiday is a kind of cultural ritual that embodies both real people and real history but with cultural symbolism and mythology,” says Lewis. “We are not really celebrating the real actors and the real characters, we’re celebrating or re-enacting a union between Indians and English peoples that we would like to think somehow symbolizes the hope of American society and the hope of freedom and unity in that society.”

Though Thanksgiving celebrations took place periodically throughout our nation’s history, the Thanksgiving celebration we know today didn’t become a tradition until the 1930s, says Lewis.

“One of the things I think that really strengthens it is both the Depression and World War II,” adds Lewis. “Rituals and celebrations like this bring the country together and as a result they become engrained in our collective imagination. So after World War II America regularly celebrates Thanksgiving.”

Today Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November because that is the day Congress declared, in 1941, to be the official day to celebrate Thanksgiving.

To listen to Lewis talk about the many myths, traditions and truths about America’s Thanksgiving in a podcast, visit www.colorado.edu/news/podcasts/.

University of Colorado at Boulder news: www.colorado.edu/news/

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