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What’s the Most Celebrated Holiday in the United States

by CiCi
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As a Native American, I find it fascinating to observe the array of holidays celebrated across the United States, each carrying its unique traditions, histories, and cultural significance. Among these, Thanksgiving stands out as the most celebrated holiday, weaving together a rich tapestry of historical commemoration, familial gatherings, culinary traditions, and expressions of gratitude. This article delves into the myriad dimensions of Thanksgiving, exploring its origins, evolution, cultural impact, and the ways in which it continues to resonate deeply with Americans today.

The Historical Origins of Thanksgiving

The roots of Thanksgiving in the United States trace back to the early 17th century, specifically to the Pilgrims’ settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1620, the Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists, embarked on a perilous journey across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower, seeking religious freedom and new opportunities. They landed at Plymouth Rock, facing a harsh winter that resulted in the loss of many lives due to disease and starvation.

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In the spring of 1621, the surviving Pilgrims established an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, who played a crucial role in their survival. The Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, taught the Pilgrims essential agricultural practices, such as planting corn, beans, and squash, and helped them understand the local ecosystem. The successful harvest that year led to a celebratory feast, often cited as the “First Thanksgiving,” attended by both Pilgrims and Native Americans. This three-day event was marked by feasting, games, and prayers of gratitude.

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Evolution and Institutionalization of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving evolved gradually from regional celebrations to a nationally recognized holiday. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, various colonies and states held their own thanksgiving observances, often tied to local events, harvests, or religious milestones. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Thanksgiving began to take on a more unified and consistent form.

The efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor and writer, were instrumental in the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For nearly four decades, Hale campaigned tirelessly, writing letters to presidents, governors, and other influential figures, advocating for a nationwide day of thanks. Her persistence paid off when President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as a day for Americans to express gratitude and seek healing for the divided nation.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to extend the holiday shopping season, a decision that sparked controversy and confusion. In 1941, Congress passed a resolution establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the official date for Thanksgiving, standardizing the holiday across the country.

Thanksgiving Traditions and Celebrations

Thanksgiving has become synonymous with a variety of cherished traditions that reflect the holiday’s historical roots and contemporary significance. Central to the celebration is the Thanksgiving meal, a feast that brings families and friends together to share an abundance of food and express gratitude for their blessings. The typical Thanksgiving dinner includes:

Turkey: The centerpiece of the meal, often roasted and served with stuffing.

Stuffing (or Dressing): A savory mixture of bread, herbs, and other ingredients, cooked inside the turkey or separately.

Mashed Potatoes and Gravy: Creamy potatoes served with rich, flavorful gravy.

Cranberry Sauce: A sweet and tangy accompaniment to the turkey.

Sweet Potatoes: Often prepared with marshmallows or a brown sugar glaze.

Green Bean Casserole: A popular side dish made with green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and crispy fried onions.

Pumpkin Pie: A classic dessert, flavored with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Beyond the meal, other traditions include:

Parades: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is an iconic event featuring giant balloons, floats, marching bands, and performances.

Football: Watching football games is a common pastime, with professional and college teams often playing on Thanksgiving Day.

Volunteerism: Many people participate in charitable activities, such as serving meals at shelters or donating to food drives, to support those in need.

Expressions of Gratitude: Families and friends often share what they are thankful for, fostering a sense of reflection and appreciation.

Cultural Impact and Representation

Thanksgiving’s cultural impact extends beyond the United States, as the holiday is celebrated in various forms by Americans living abroad and has influenced similar holidays in other countries. The themes of gratitude, harvest, and communal celebration resonate universally, making Thanksgiving a significant cultural export.

However, the holiday also carries complex historical and cultural implications, particularly for Native Americans. For many Native people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and remembrance, highlighting the devastating impact of European colonization on Indigenous communities. The story of the “First Thanksgiving” is often romanticized, glossing over the subsequent centuries of displacement, disease, and violence endured by Native Americans.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to acknowledge and address these historical injustices. Some Native American groups and allies advocate for rethinking Thanksgiving celebrations to include education about Indigenous history and contemporary issues. This shift aims to foster a more inclusive and accurate understanding of the holiday’s origins and its impact on Native communities.

Thanksgiving in Modern American Society

Thanksgiving remains a vital and evolving part of American culture, reflecting the nation’s values, challenges, and diversity. In contemporary society, the holiday serves multiple purposes:

Family and Community: Thanksgiving is often seen as a time for reunions and gatherings, strengthening familial and communal bonds.

Cultural Exchange: As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, Thanksgiving celebrations have incorporated a variety of cultural traditions and foods, reflecting the melting pot of American society.

Consumerism and Commerce: The holiday marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday following closely. This commercialization has both economic benefits and criticisms, as it sometimes overshadows the holiday’s original purpose.

The Future of Thanksgiving

The future of Thanksgiving will likely continue to evolve as American society changes. Several trends and factors may shape the holiday’s trajectory:

Increased Awareness and Inclusivity: Efforts to educate about the true history of Thanksgiving and include Indigenous perspectives may lead to more inclusive and reflective celebrations.

Environmental Considerations: With growing awareness of sustainability and environmental issues, there may be a shift towards more eco-friendly Thanksgiving practices, such as reducing food waste and supporting local farmers.

Technological Influence: Technology will continue to influence how people celebrate Thanksgiving, from virtual gatherings for those who cannot be together in person to innovative ways of cooking and sharing meals.

See also: 8 Top American Popular Holiday Destination

Conclusion

Thanksgiving stands as the most celebrated holiday in the United States, embodying a complex interplay of history, tradition, and modernity. Its origins in the early interactions between Pilgrims and Native Americans, its evolution into a national holiday, and its contemporary significance as a time for family, gratitude, and reflection all contribute to its enduring popularity. While the holiday brings joy and togetherness to many, it also prompts critical reflection on the nation’s history and the need for a more inclusive and accurate representation of its past.

As we look to the future, Thanksgiving will undoubtedly continue to evolve, adapting to the changing values and dynamics of American society. By embracing both the celebration and the critical reflection it inspires, Americans can honor the holiday’s rich heritage while fostering a more inclusive and thoughtful observance.

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