The Essence of Thanksgiving: An American Holiday

by CiCi
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Thanksgiving stands as one of the most cherished holidays in the United States, deeply rooted in the nation’s history and cultural identity. It is a time when families and friends gather to express gratitude for their blessings, share bountiful meals, and enjoy each other’s company. To understand why Thanksgiving is an American holiday, it is essential to delve into its historical origins, evolution over centuries, cultural significance, and the ways it continues to shape the American spirit.

The Historical Origins of Thanksgiving

The story of Thanksgiving traditionally begins with the Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists who sought religious freedom and established the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts in 1620. After a perilous journey across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, the Pilgrims faced a harsh winter, during which nearly half of them perished due to cold, starvation, and disease. With the arrival of spring, the survivors were aided by the Wampanoag people, native to the region, who taught them vital agricultural techniques and helped them secure their first successful harvest.


In the autumn of 1621, to celebrate their survival and successful harvest, the Pilgrims held a feast, inviting their Wampanoag allies to join in the festivities. This event is often regarded as the “First Thanksgiving.” While the historical accuracy of this narrative has been debated, it symbolizes a moment of cooperation and mutual gratitude between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.


Evolution into a National Holiday

Although the 1621 feast is widely recognized, Thanksgiving did not become an annual tradition immediately. Various colonies held days of thanksgiving at different times to celebrate military victories, bountiful harvests, or other significant events. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Thanksgiving began to evolve into the national holiday we know today.

One key figure in this transformation was Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent writer and editor. Starting in the 1820s, Hale embarked on a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She believed that a national day of thanks would help unify the country. Her persistent lobbying over several decades included writing letters to politicians, editorials, and even a novel that featured Thanksgiving celebrations.

Hale’s efforts eventually paid off during the Civil War. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, seeking to foster a sense of unity amidst the division and turmoil of the war, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. This decision was influenced by Hale’s advocacy and the desire to promote a sense of national unity and gratitude.

Cultural Significance and Traditions

Thanksgiving’s significance extends beyond its historical origins and political proclamations; it is deeply embedded in American culture through its traditions and the values it embodies.

Family and Togetherness

One of the most prominent aspects of Thanksgiving is its focus on family and togetherness. It is a time when extended families gather, often traveling great distances to be with loved ones. This emphasis on family bonds reflects the broader American cultural value placed on family unity and support.

The Feast

Central to Thanksgiving celebrations is the feast, which traditionally includes turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. These dishes have become symbolic of the holiday, representing abundance and the fruits of hard work and cooperation. The meal itself is an act of sharing and gratitude, bringing people together around a communal table.

Gratitude and Reflection

Thanksgiving provides an opportunity for reflection and expressing gratitude. Many families have traditions of going around the table and sharing what they are thankful for, fostering a sense of appreciation and mindfulness. This practice aligns with the broader cultural emphasis on individual and collective gratitude.

Parades and Public Celebrations

Public celebrations and parades are also integral to Thanksgiving. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, with its elaborate floats, giant balloons, and performances, has become an iconic part of the holiday. Such events serve to bring communities together, creating a shared experience of joy and festivity.


Thanksgiving football games are a modern tradition that combines American sports culture with the holiday. Watching football has become a staple activity, providing entertainment and a sense of camaraderie among fans and families.

Thanksgiving’s Role in Shaping American Identity

Thanksgiving is more than just a holiday; it plays a crucial role in shaping American identity and values. It encapsulates ideals of gratitude, family, and community, while also reflecting the complex history and cultural diversity of the United States.

The Melting Pot of Cultures

The Thanksgiving celebration, with its blend of traditions from various cultural backgrounds, illustrates the concept of the United States as a melting pot. While the holiday has its roots in English Pilgrim history, it has evolved to include diverse culinary traditions and customs brought by immigrants from around the world.

Unity and Reconciliation

Thanksgiving has often been used as a tool for promoting unity and reconciliation. President Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation came at a time of deep national division, and subsequent presidents have continued to use the holiday to promote messages of unity. In contemporary times, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the potential for harmony and cooperation among different cultural and social groups.

Economic Impact

The holiday also has significant economic implications. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with Black Friday following immediately after. This period is crucial for retailers and the economy, influencing consumer behavior and economic trends.

Thanksgiving and Native Americans

While Thanksgiving is often viewed as a time of celebration, it also presents an opportunity to reflect on the complex and often painful history of Native Americans. The traditional narrative of the first Thanksgiving often glosses over the subsequent centuries of conflict, displacement, and suffering experienced by Native American communities.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to acknowledge this history and incorporate it into the broader understanding of Thanksgiving. For some Native Americans, Thanksgiving is observed as a National Day of Mourning, honoring their ancestors and raising awareness about the ongoing challenges faced by their communities.

Thanksgiving in Modern America

Thanksgiving continues to evolve, reflecting contemporary societal changes and challenges. The holiday has adapted to include new traditions and practices while retaining its core values of gratitude, family, and community.

Inclusive Celebrations

Modern Thanksgiving celebrations often include a diverse array of dishes and customs, reflecting the multicultural nature of American society. From incorporating dishes from various cultural backgrounds to creating inclusive spaces for all family structures and lifestyles, Thanksgiving has become a holiday that embraces diversity.

Environmental and Ethical Considerations

With growing awareness of environmental and ethical issues, many people are rethinking traditional Thanksgiving practices. This includes choosing sustainably sourced foods, reducing waste, and considering the ethical implications of their choices. These considerations add a contemporary layer to the holiday, aligning it with broader societal values of sustainability and responsibility.

Virtual Gatherings

The COVID-19 pandemic has also influenced how Thanksgiving is celebrated. With travel restrictions and health concerns, many people have turned to virtual gatherings to connect with loved ones. This shift has highlighted the adaptability of Thanksgiving traditions and the enduring importance of connection and gratitude, even in challenging times.

Volunteering and Community Service

Volunteering and community service have become increasingly associated with Thanksgiving. Many people use the holiday as an opportunity to give back, whether through serving meals at shelters, donating to food banks, or participating in community service projects. This aligns with the holiday’s theme of gratitude and underscores the importance of supporting those in need.


Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, deeply woven into the nation’s historical fabric and cultural identity. Its origins, evolving traditions, and enduring significance reflect the core values of gratitude, family, and community that define the American spirit. As the holiday continues to adapt to contemporary societal changes, it remains a powerful symbol of unity, resilience, and shared humanity.

While it is a time of celebration and reflection for many, it also presents an opportunity to engage with the more complex aspects of American history and culture. By acknowledging and honoring these complexities, Thanksgiving can continue to evolve as a holiday that brings people together, fosters understanding, and celebrates the diverse tapestry of American life.

Related topics:Why Monday is a Holiday in the U.S

Why Good Friday is Not a National Holiday in the US

Why Christmas Is an American Holiday


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