As the world marches into nearly a year of being gripped by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Thanksgiving season is feeling a touch more morose than normal for many. The fact is, however, Thanksgiving has always found its roots in struggle – an opportunity to take a step back from the struggles of life and really feel good about the good in your life.
A brief history of giving thanks
The holiday, also known as Harvest Fest as in some circles, has an interesting history. Thanksgiving’s roots are in the first English settlers’ arrival in North America on a ship called the Mayflower. The settlement was founded by pilgrims, religious separatists who were fleeing religious persecution and wanted to establish a place where they could practice their religion freely.
They established their colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. That name probably sounds familiar.
The pilgrims celebrated harvest feasts throughout the fall and winter months after they had harvested their crops and stored them for the winter. This tradition eventually became known as “Thanksgiving.”
The early pilgrims were not alone in their journey to America. They had a Native American friend named Squanto who helped them during their first winter by teaching them how to grow crops and hunt for food. He also taught them how to fish using weirs and other techniques, which they would have otherwise been unfamiliar with.
Squanto’s help is credited with saving the colony from starvation as they learned how to survive in their new home. The pilgrims gave him gifts upon his departure from Plymouth on July 11, 1622, but sadly he died shortly after returning home due to illness contracted while living among the English settlers.
Fun fact: Squanto is known as the first native American martyr in the Christian faith, as he died just three days after he converted to Christianity at Massasoit’s village at modern-day Middleborough, Massachusetts.
How Thanksgiving changed over the years
After 1621, when Governor William Bradford declared that a day of thanksgiving be observed annually, Thanksgiving became an annual tradition and has been ever since.
In the early days, Thanksgiving was celebrated in private homes and was a religious holiday. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. It was celebrated on the last Thursday of November, but it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress officially moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving rituals have varied over the years. The traditional meal, which consists of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy is a tradition that was developed in the early 19th century. Turkey wasn’t traditionally served until the mid-1800s.
Fun fact: The first official turkey pardoning took place in 1947 when President Harry Truman pardoned a live turkey at the White House.
The first Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in Philadelphia in 1920 and has since become an annual tradition on the day after Thanksgiving. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is famous for its giant balloons that are featured each year, including Snoopy, Garfield and Ronald McDonald. Long a sitcom mainstay, the Thanksgiving parade continues to draw thousands as an adage to the communal nature of the Thanksgiving tradition.
Thanksgiving has long been celebrated as a time to gather with family and friends to give thanks for what we have been given. It’s also a time to reflect on those who have made it possible for us to be here today – whether they be our ancestors or those who make life easier for us today, such as frontline workers and teachers.
Celebrating Thanksgiving during Tough Times
During WW2, Americans were living through the tail end of the Great Depression. Many were struggling to make ends meet, and food was scarce. To make matters worse, many of our country’s young men were soon sent off fighting in Europe and Asia in WWII.
Food rationing became a way of life. This meant that families had to find creative ways to cook meals with the food they had on hand and feed their families. Many Americans also donated much of their food to help feed people overseas who had been displaced by war and needed help getting back on their feet.
Thanksgiving was a time for Americans to gather together, be thankful for what they had, and give thanks for the sacrifices made by those who fought in the war so that we could continue to live in peace at home.
Thanksgiving in the Year of COVID-19
Today, we are again living through tough times. Our country is in the midst of an economic recession that has had many Americans struggling to make ends meet. Many are struggling to find work and have been forced to give up their homes or move in with family members because they can no longer afford housing.
In addition, millions of people are without health insurance and have limited access to medical care. There are also millions of children going to bed hungry every night. It’s easy for us to feel discouraged during these tough times, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the great tidings we do have – even if they’re small ones like a warm meal, a place to sleep, or the ability to order in some ice cream for the kids after Thanksgiving dinner.
While it might be hard to gather the troops as we did in the past, it’s important that we continue giving thanks and help those who need it so that others can enjoy this holiday season as well. If you’re not able to gather everyone together, make a point of helping someone in need by donating food to a local food bank. You could also donate money to your favorite charity or even give the gift of life by signing up to be an organ donor.
And hey – you can still get together with family and friends for a virtual meal. It might not be normal, but times of strife are the best times to talk a moment with your loved ones and give thanks for all that you do have.