The History of Thanksgiving

If you’re a current or former Bethel history major, you’re very likely the kind of person who wonders how things got to be the way they are. For example, tomorrow you might find yourself asking yourself why Americans spend the fourth Thursday in every November pausing their usual labors and studies in order to eat turkey, watch football, and give thanks.

So head off those questions by reading some of these recent posts and articles on the history of Thanksgiving!

McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving• Last Thanksgiving our AnneMarie Kooistra reviewed The First Thanksgiving, by Wheaton College history professor Tracy McKenzie. This month Prof. McKenzie has been using his blog to reexamine Thanksgiving’s historic and mythic past. For example, historical evidence inconveniently leaves unanswerable most of our questions about the first Thanksgiving, but an 1889 novel by Jane Austin (not Austen) filled in the gaps. And while he’s not especially fond of actor-filmmaker Kirk Cameron’s version of the tale, McKenzie does find himself inspired and convicted by what we can truly know about the Pilgrims.

• Warren Throckmorton has opened his popular Patheos blog to American historians, asking them to share more about the history of this holiday. For example, Jared Burkholder (Grace College) explains “that the ‘First Thanksgiving’ probably had more to do with politics than fellowship, especially if seen through native eyes,” and John Wilsey (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) advises fellow Christians to “glean wisdom from the past without using it to advance an agenda.”

• Did you know that Thanksgiving began as a regional holiday, almost entirely confined to New England. It took the Civil War to spread it to the rest of the Union.

• Or that, until the 20th century, Thanksgiving was more like Halloween than Halloween was?

Children "masking" as "ragamuffins" for Thanksgiving, ca. 1910-1915
A Thanksgiving tradition from just before WWI: children dressing as “ragamuffins” and begging for apples, candy, or coins from neighbors — Library of Congress

 

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