A Thanksgiving Story

November, 20, 2020

Thanksgiving is a quintessential New England holiday with roots here in Connecticut. The origin is often thought and taught to be a sit down meal with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and members of the Wampanoag tribe in 1621, to give thanks for the Pilgrims’ settlement and survival in the New World. While this most likely happened in some form, the event would have been a simple festival celebrating the recent harvest. Actual Thanksgivings (which always occurred after an official proclamation) were paired early on with fast days. These events had no set time on a calendar; rather they would fluctuate around perceived crises and wins in the community. Fast days were to make up for what had angered God, and Thanksgivings were proclaimed as days of services to literally thank God for recent good fortune.

An official proclamation of Thanksgiving was declared by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop in 1637 after the English settlers’ and their Native American allies victory against the Pequot tribe at the Battle of Mistick Fort (located today in Mystic, Connecticut). This battle resulted in a great loss of life (mostly a massacre of Native Americans) and signaled the beginning of the end of the Pequot War. Thanksgiving was declared in celebration of the settlers’ victory.

Thanksgiving would continue to be declared as local and provincial celebrations, mostly centered in New England, until the first U.S. President George Washington, proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” on October 3,1789 in the nation’s first capital, New York City. He hoped to use the day to unite the new country and celebrate God’s providence in its formation. This act broadened the scope of thanksgivings from regional to national in celebration.

At the height of the American Civil War, Thanksgiving was once again used as a tool for national unity. On October 3, 1863, 74 years to the day after Washington’s declaration, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November to recognize the strength and good of the fractured nation and to persevere forward as one. The date of the last Thursday of the month would officially stick as a national holiday during the Reconstruction period of the 1870s.

Between the 1870s and 1941, the holiday became popularized in American culture and many of the traditions and imagery that we celebrate today came about. In the 1930s, the idea of “the Pilgrims and the Indians” and their “traditional” garb was derived from the tercentenary celebrations and pageants in New Haven and throughout New England. These were large-scale celebrations that took place in states that were originally British colonies, that both honored the three centuries since their founding’s and also served as essential economic boons to a slowly recovering national economy that was stuck in the Great Depression.

On December 26, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a U.S. Congressional resolution that officially made Thanksgiving a floating national holiday once more, always being the fourth Thursday of November. This too was thought to provide a boost to the economy with more time to shop and prepare for the expanding commercial holiday season.

In most recent years we commonly celebrate this day as a nation with romantic images of traveling to wherever our homes are and uniting with family and friends. This year as it has been, will be different. Hopefully though we can take some time to pause, reflect and breathe with some degrees of joy. Take heart, a new year is ahead of us…

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives

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