It seems to me that celebrations associated with some of our holidays have undergone a change, a transformation, from the original basis of the holiday to something different. The evolution from Armistice Day, in which we memorialized the end of WWI, to Veterans Day, where all military veterans are recognized for their service to our country, is one prime example. Another is the celebration of what we knew when I was a youngster as Decoration Day, which began when folks started decorating the graves of those who fell during the Civil War (or War Between the States if you prefer), but became Memorial Day recognizing all military dead.
In both these cases, the change was appropriate and acceptable. On the other hand, we are now approaching another national holiday – Thanksgiving Day – which has not had a name change but has been transformed in other ways.
The origins of our Thanksgiving holiday tradition can be traced to two events, one in 1619 in Virginia – which is well recorded – and a less well documented, but much better known, 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. In 1619 the arrival of 38 English settlers in Charles City County, Virginia, prompted a religious celebration decreed by the group’s charter from the London Company, requiring “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The 1621 Plymouth feast of thanksgiving was occasioned by a good harvest and was likewise a celebration of thanks to God.
Through the early years of our country various celebrations of thanksgiving have been held in different parts of the nation, but the declarations of these days all had one theme in common – thanks to God.
For example, the first President of the United States, George Washington, proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours (sic) of Almighty God” Thanksgiving was also officially called for in all states in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed a day of national Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, explicitly in celebration of the “bounties” that had continued to bless the country. The holiday was annually proclaimed by every president thereafter, and the date chosen, with few exceptions, was the last Thursday in November.
But the holiday celebration gradually departed from its religious roots to more secular traditions. Thanksgiving Day football games beginning with Yale versus Princeton in 1876 – along with feasts featuring turkey – have essentially replaced religious celebrations and dominate the holiday scene. The holiday has also taken on the trappings of a prelude to the Christmas shopping season.
Nearly a hundred years ago in 1920 Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia staged a Thanksgiving parade of about 50 people with Santa Claus at the rear of the procession thus welcoming in the Christmas shopping season. Since 1924 the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City has continued the parade tradition with huge balloons being featured since 1927. Other communities throughout the country now have their own Thanksgiving parades, “Turkey Trots”, pumpkin tosses, and such, but they don’t reflect the original theme of the holiday – “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
In keeping with this dramatic change, another unofficial holiday has emerged. The term Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving Day, became widely recognized in the early 2000’s and since 2005 has been acknowledged as the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States. Today, Black Friday promotions and sales have been extended from the end of October through the early part of December thus surrounding and diminishing the celebration of what was formerly a day of thanksgiving. Ah! Progress!
Well, one Thanksgiving tradition is still celebrated – the gathering of family and friends sharing a festive meal. A current manifestation of this custom often extends to churches, civic organizations, and communities providing free turkey dinners to any and all. Yep, I think this is one way we are still offering thanks for the blessings this country continues to receive – by sharing our abundance. And so I figure we should include family and friends to feasting and football as characteristic of today’s Thanksgiving celebrations. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a regular Greene County Daily columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.