We celebrated Thanksgiving at HD today: seven Greeks, one Romanian, one Brazilian, and one American. Since I was the only one who knew what the holiday was all about, they asked me to prepare a short history of Thanksgiving to share with them. As a US citizen living in Europe, I am acutely aware of how the United States is often perceived as boorish, backwards, and power-hungry. I am simultaneously proud of and ashamed of my heritage, and I hope this summary of Thanksgiving accurately represents the best and worst of what the United States is capable.
In 1620, a ship called the Mayflower left England. On it were 102 people, called Pilgrims, who were looking for a new land where they could have religious freedom and own their own property. After 66 days at sea, they landed in North America and established a new home called Plymouth.
More than half of those 102 people died during their first winter. But when spring arrived, a Native American named Squanto came to them speaking English. He had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. He managed to escape London and return to his homeland in North America. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped them establish an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe nearby.
In November of 1621, the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was successful. To celebrate, they invited their Wampanoag allies to join them in a three day feast. Although this was the first Thanksgiving celebrated, the day did not become official until Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday 200 years later in 1863. This was during the Civil War, and he hoped it would encourage all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
It’s important to know that, although this day began with the alliance between Pilgrims and Native Americans, we very quickly forced them off their land, massacred their people, and forced them to live in reservations on some of the worst land in our country. In the United States, we are good at ignoring our crimes in favor of celebrating our own successes. Hopefully our continued remembrance of Thanksgiving will remind us to be thankful for what we have while still fighting to ally ourselves with people who are different from us.