What is the history of Thanksgiving – and why is it controversial?

A breakdown of everything you need to know about Thanksgiving.

 Happy Thanksgiving (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Happy Thanksgiving (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

The Thanksgiving holiday is considered by many to be a classic slice of Americana, and a definitive part of the American experience.

Dating back over 200 years, the holiday itself is meant to commemorate events even older than that, though many have made it into a divisive issue in terms of colonialism and its legacy.

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout the US, having many different customs and traditions – including for many American Jews.

But what are these traditions? What are the holiday's origins and why is it so divisive now? 

Here is everything you need to know about Thanksgiving.

Colorful pumpkins are decorated with the handwritten words “‘tis the season to be thankful.” (credit: GETTY IMAGES)Colorful pumpkins are decorated with the handwritten words “‘tis the season to be thankful.” (credit: GETTY IMAGES)

What are the origins of Thanksgiving? When did people start celebrating it?

Many date Thanksgiving practices to traditions French and Spanish colonists practiced in the 1500s. These services, which were meant to give thanks and celebrate harvests, continued into the 1600s when permanent British settlers came to Virginia. 

The event considered the first Thanksgiving is considered by many to have been in 1619 in Virginia when several British colonists held a Thanksgiving celebration right when they landed.

However, the event most popularly attributed to Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The settlers of this colony, a group of separatist Puritans who became known as Pilgrims, had settled in the area but suffered a harsh winter.

Thanks to the help of Tisquantum – more commonly known as Squanto – the last surviving member of the Native American Patuxets who used to live in the land, the Pilgrims learned to grow corn and fish. With this and receiving food from other nearby Wampanoags, the Pilgrims held their first-ever Thanksgiving in commemoration of this successful harvest. 

The impact this particular event actually had on modern-day Thanksgiving is a matter of debate, as proper accounts of it had largely gone forgotten until the 19th century.

Thanksgiving itself was also celebrated in 1777 by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, in particular by George Washington in December of that year in honor of the decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

On October 3, 1789, then-president Washington announced another day of Thanksgiving, the first one designated by the US government. And while other Thanksgiving days followed in later years, there wasn't a set date for them, nor were they regular. In fact, Thomas Jefferson did not have a single day of Thanksgiving in his entire presidency.

It wasn't until 1863 that Thanksgiving became an official annual holiday, put in place by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the US Civil War. Since then, it has been celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

What are common Thanksgiving traditions?

As indicated by the name, Thanksgiving traditionally placed a lot of focus on being thankful. Nowadays, this doesn't focus on the harvest, but it is very evident in charity. Annual food drives are common around this time, and special dinners are organized by organizations like the Salvation Army. 

By far the biggest and most iconic aspect of Thanksgiving is food, with families around the country gathering together for a large, traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Staples of these meals include turkey, stuffing, squash, corn, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce - all food native to the Americas.

Thanksgiving reminds us of the enduring power of Judaism to enrich the human condition. (credit: PIXABAY)Thanksgiving reminds us of the enduring power of Judaism to enrich the human condition. (credit: PIXABAY)

Pumpkin is also a staple, though this has a decidedly different history and is thought by many to have gained popularity during the Civil War as a symbol of abolitionism, as pumpkins were grown on small farms without slaves rather than massive plantations.

These dinners are staples of the American experience and are times when extended families all come together.

Further, turkeys have also become symbolic of the holiday as a whole, and a tradition has even formed where the sitting US president would give a presidential pardon to a turkey, meaning they would be spared from being killed and served as dinner.

Sports have also become an important part of the holiday, particularly American football. Despite having only been held on Sunday or Monday night for many years, there has always been a game on Thanksgiving – except during World War II.

In recent years, however, another major aspect of Thanksgiving has emerged: Commercialism.

This typically manifests in two forms: Black Friday and the iconic Thanksgiving Day Parade.

There are a few of these parades, held in cities throughout the country, the oldest being in Philadelphia.

THE ICONIC Pillsbury Doughboy floats high above New York City during a recent Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (credit: SHINYA SUZUKI/FLICKR)THE ICONIC Pillsbury Doughboy floats high above New York City during a recent Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (credit: SHINYA SUZUKI/FLICKR)

But the most famous is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan. Billed as the largest parade in the world, this annual event sees large floats, marching bands and massive balloons of iconic popular culture characters and figures. Though the roster always changes, the ending is almost always the same: the Santa Claus float, which signals the arrival of the Christmas season.

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving and is the largest and most important day in US retail. It is characterized by massive discounts and deals, especially early in the morning. The holiday is important because it kicks off the holiday season – and most retailers are closed on Thanksgiving anyway.

Massive crowds often gather at stores ahead of opening to make sure they can get access to these limited-time offers. 

Over time, this has extended to the following Monday, known as Cyber Monday, which sees massive deals offered at online shopping.

Why is Thanksgiving controversial?

The holiday may be about being thankful in principle, but it is considered by many as an acknowledgment of the role of colonialism in North America and the displacement and oppression of the Native Americans.

This is especially true because many in the US have had a whitewashed, idealized view of the first Thanksgiving as a sign of peace and friendship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, and in effect overlooking how European colonization saw massive amounts of death and injustice for the country's native peoples.

Others criticize perceived religious aspects of the holiday, overly capitalistic tendencies of retailers and for kicking off the Christmas season and subsequently being a reason why some people put up Christmas decorations so early.

Do other countries celebrate Thanksgiving?

Yes, but not exactly in the same way.

Many countries and cultures have holidays dedicated to giving thanks. But only a handful have a Thanksgiving holiday in the same sense as in the US.

These countries are Canada, Grenada, Liberia and Saint Lucia.

Canada's Thanksgiving has its own history and traditions and is observed in October, when the US traditionally marks Columbus Day in honor of Christopher Columbus's arrival in America on October 12, 1492.

Grenada's Thanksgiving is a far more modern event, taking place every year on October 25, marking the anniversary of the 1983 US-led invasion of the country in response to a military coup.

Liberia's Thanksgiving, celebrated on the first Thursday of November, is itself rooted in the country's history and close association with the US, having been formed by freed slaves. However, it is mainly just celebrated by the descendants of these freed slaves, who make up a demographic within the country known as Americo-Liberians, and not by the many other native ethnicities and other demographics in the diverse West African nation.

IN THIS memorial along the Chicago River, George Washington, in his Revolutionary War uniform, shakes hands with English-born Robert Morris on his right and Polish-Jewish emigrant Salomon on his left. Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Salomon provided financial support to assu (credit: FLICKR)IN THIS memorial along the Chicago River, George Washington, in his Revolutionary War uniform, shakes hands with English-born Robert Morris on his right and Polish-Jewish emigrant Salomon on his left. Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Salomon provided financial support to assu (credit: FLICKR)

Thanksgiving in Judaism?

Despite the close association the holiday has with God and being thankful, Thanksgiving is officially a secular holiday. As such, there is no inherent contradiction in Judaism for celebrating it.

There are even some specific traditions within Judaism for this holiday.

This is especially the case with Shareith Israel, the oldest congregation of Jews in North America, located in Manhattan. 

This Sephardi Jewish community dates back to 1654 when the first Jews arrived in New York – and they have been there ever since.

In 1789, the leader of this congregation, Gershom Mendes Seixas, gave a sermon marking Thanksgiving following Washington's announcement. His sermon discussed the religious importance of thankfulness in a government and the spiritual role of justice in supporting elected representatives.

This was also seen as a call for American Jewry to engage in political life – something Jews could not do in most of the world – and drew parallels between American Independence and the Zionist dream of one day returning the Jewish people to their homeland.

"Let me recommend to you a serious consideration of the several duties already set forth this day: to enter into a self-examination; to relinquish your prejudices against each other; to subdue your passions; to live, as Jews ought to do, in brotherhood and amity; 'to seek peace and pursue it,'" he said in his sermon. "So shall it be well with you both here and hereafter; which God, of his infinite mercies, grant

Every year on Thanksgiving, this community recites Hallel without the blessing and says several portions of Psalms and prayers for the US government.