What can be more familiar than good old Thanksgiving Day, probably the most traditional of all holidays?
Yet the holiday we celebrate nowadays on the fourth Thursday of November is very different from what it was intended as originally. And, frankly speaking, it is pretty hard to define what exactly is its real origin and how far back one has to go to uncover it.
The matter is, almost all cultures, especially those with agricultural roots, have a kind of Thanksgiving day, usually celebrated in Autumn – people give thanks to whatever higher powers they believe in for the harvest.
However, the holiday most people think about when they hear about the Thanksgiving day is much younger – most sources believe that it originates from 1621 celebration in the colony of Plymouth, founded by the Pilgrims who came to America on Mayflower.
They had a lot to thank for – after arriving to the New World in late autumn they barely survived the following winter and were stranded far away from home, in a un unknown place with hostile nature and climate. However, they received help from natives, who taught them how to cultivate and prepare local plants – and the next autumn their toils were rewarded with unexpectedly bountiful harvest.
The Pilgrims decided that such good luck called for a celebration, and thus the first Thanksgiving Day took place. In order to commemorate the help they received from natives, they invited about a hundred of them to this feast.
However, at the time Thanksgiving day didn’t have a stable date and wasn’t even considered to be an annual celebration – in later years it was celebrated occasionally, but not every year. In addition to that, different towns and states had their own ideas of when it is supposed to be celebrated, which led to even more confusion.
Thanksgiving Day turned into an important national holiday resembling what it is today only after the War for Independence – George Washington offered it as a day of country-wide thanksgiving and prayer.
However, even after that there was no fixed date for the holiday – current tradition of celebrating it on the fourth Thursday of November is quite a young one – it dates back only to 1941.
During its almost 400-year history, Thanksgiving Day underwent many changes and alterations. It started out as a purely religious festival, aimed at praising God for good harvest and general well-being: all family members took time to think about things they were grateful for and said their thanks out loud.
However, in the course of time its nature changed, and today it is a purely secular holiday associated with family values and national spirit. It is one of the few days when an entire family is supposed to get together in the house of its oldest generation, thus reinforcing the blood ties between them and reminding that all of them should stick together and no matter how different they are there is still a lot of things they have in common.
At its time of origin, American culture was a purely agricultural one, and thus Thanksgiving Day had an enormous symbolic and emotional meaning – after a year of hard work people finally got the results of their efforts and had a very good reason for festivities. Today, in modern urban America, Thanksgiving Day remains a beautiful tradition, but has lost most of its emotional impact. We are no longer tied to natural rhythms and are less dependent on how good our current harvest is – a lot of people have no idea about harvests and suchlike at all.
But we still have a lot to thank for.