Features Editor, Olivia Bybel, explores the history behind Thanksgiving Day, and what it has become. She recounts some of her own experiences, and gives ideas on how to celebrate this year.
For Americans living abroad, like many students in St Andrews, Thanksgiving can be one of the loneliest days of the year. In a year already defined by isolation and loneliness, Thanksgiving is just the next of the many holidays this year that have been celebrated differently, if at all. For many freshers, this will be their first Thanksgiving away from home, but unlike my last two Thanksgiving, they won’t be able to gather their friends for a big dinner. Others might be facing spending the holiday season away from their families. I’ve grown to love the UK and its inhabitants very much in my time here, but I’m not quite impressed with the way they do the holidays (too many raisins). Perhaps this is why I feel so nostalgic and homesick especially around Thanksgiving.
But what, you may be asking, is Thanksgiving anyway? What is the big fuss about? Let’s dive into the history of Thanksgiving, what it’s become, and how you can celebrate this year.
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the US occurring on the last Thursday of November every year. The tradition started in 1621, when colonists from Plymouth, England, and Wampanoag Native Americans partook in an autumn harvest feast together. The colonists had travelled from England on the Mayflower, searching for freedom to practice their religions, prosperity, and land ownership. They landed near what is now Massachusetts, and, after spending a brutal winter aboard the Mayflower and losing half of the passengers to exposure and disease, they moved ashore to begin building their village, Plymouth.
They were visited by an Abenaki Native American who spoke English. A few days later he brough another Nativie American, Squanto, who had once been kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English sea captain. He eventually escaped and returned to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. He taught the Plymouth pilgrims how to grow corn, extract sap from maple trees, and catch fish. He warned them against poisonous plants, and cultivated an alliance between the local tribe, the Wampanoag, and the pilgrims.
In November 1621, the pilgrim’s had a successful first corn harvest. The governor invited some of their Native American Allies to a celebratory feast which lasted three days. This is what is considered to be the first Thanksgiving, and for over two hundred years, colonies, and states celebrated individual Thanksgivings. This alliance, and friendship is one of the few examples of an amicable relationship between European colonists and Native Americans. As children growing up in America, this is one of the first, and sometimes the only story we learn about the relations between colonists and Native Americans in our early education. Unfortunately, the Thanksgiving story is not an accurate representation of the violence, and subjugation which occurred, and when learned on its own, can paint a misleading picture of America’s early history.
In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day would be nationally celebrated every November on the fourth thursday of the month, and has been celebrated then, for the most part, ever since.
Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated quite differently than the pilgrims did it. Today it revolves cooking, often celebrated by the gathering of families for a very large meal. Although the first thanksgiving is thought to have been made using traditional Native American cooking methods, Today most families eat turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, veggies, and pumpkin pie. For many, the holiday is a celebration of family, friends, and anything else one has to be grateful for. Many people use the holiday as an opportunity to volunteer, or participate in food drives. There are also some wackier traditions, such as the President pardoning a turkey, and sending it to retirement rather than the dinner table, or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, featuring giant floats travelling down the streets of New York City.
My Thanksgivings, growing up, featured all this and more: wholesome family time, food comas, taking photos with my younger brother in color coordinated outfits, and so much more. My last two Thanksgivings in St Andrews have been different, but still wonderful. I have experienced the joy of introducing my British friends to the holiday, and forcing them to proclaim what they were thankful for (another tradition). I heard them confusedly ask why we ate Christmas dinner so early in the year, though I would argue that Thanksgiving dinner features far fewer raisins than a British Christmas dinner, and is thus superior. I cooked, I baked, I missed my family, I wore autumnal colors, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving abroad again this year, although a bit discouraged by the current restrictions, there are still a few ways to “get together”.
Have dinner together online!
I know, I’m sorry, but I have to include it. Although I know just how annoying it is to be told I can attend yet another online replacement. It isnt the same. However, we are fortunate, in at least one way, that our technology allows us to see and talk to eachother, when we cannot be together. This is one of the only ways, at present, that large groups can socialise together. You, and your household, can eat in the comfort and warmth of your home, and talk to your friends and family as well.
Cooking a big, traditional meal for yourself, might seem like a waste of effort and resources. Treat yourself to your favorite takeout. As you might not be able to dine out if you wanted too for dinner (thank you tier 3), you can still take a break from cooking and cleaning and get Deliveroo, ecoeats, or just regular old takeout. In some ways this is the anti-Thanksgiving.
Take advantage of the beautiful Scottish weather and have dinner (or maybe lunch?) outside with yours and a whole other household. Many of us have been spending much more time outside than we might have in normal circumstances, but maybe that has made us more equipped to deal with the cold and wet. Bundle up, keep those numbers at six or lower, and drink some warm beverages before the sun makes a break for it. Beach walk anyone?
2020 has been a strange, and difficult year, the holidays epitomising it. For our American readership, and the friends that celebrate with them, Thanksgiving this year can seem like another just another thing cancelled or changed by the pandemic we are living through. All is not lost, and there are still things to be thankful for this year.