The making of Thanksgiving in the US

November 25, 2020

The popular American image of the first Thanksgiving looks a bit like a United Methodist potluck — 17th-century style.
We imagine Pilgrims in funny hats and American Indians in feathery headdresses solemnly bowing their heads in gratitude for God’s bounty before sharing heaping plates of potatoes, corn and, of course, turkey.
It’s a picturesque tableau. And just about everything about it is wrong.

What many Americans call the first Thanksgiving began with a misunderstanding and grew into a myth.
With this year marking the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in present-day Massachusetts and a renewed focus on U.S. and church racial history, it’s worth exploring both the good — and the bad — of how a U.S. tradition developed.

“Because Thanksgiving is really a national observance, not a directly religious one, it is a splendid occasion to reflect on the actual history of America, not the sentimentalized version,” said the Rev. William B. Lawrence. He is former dean and professor emeritus of American church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, a district superintendent of Lakota heritage, has written about Thanksgiving’s history from a Native perspective.

“Thanksgiving is a universal idea, and cultures around the world have festivals related to the harvest season in which they give thanks to the Creator for the provision of food,” she said. “So I would never say, ‘Don’t have it.’ But I would say: Remember the primary focus, which is thanking God.”

The first thing to know is that the Native American people at the famous feast weren’t nameless supporting players. They were the Wampanoag people, a nation consisting of multiple tribes in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They had been holding celebrations of thanksgiving long before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.
The second thing to know is that the Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving.