Is Thanksgiving an American or British Holiday?

by CiCi
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Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday in the United States, characterized by feasting, gratitude, and cultural symbolism. It holds a prominent place in American national identity, often seen as a time for families to come together, reflect on blessings, and enjoy a traditional meal centered around roast turkey and pumpkin pie. However, the roots of Thanksgiving trace back to early colonial history, intertwining with British traditions and practices. This raises an intriguing question: Is Thanksgiving truly an American holiday, or does it owe more to its British origins?

To explore this question thoroughly, we must delve into the historical origins of Thanksgiving, examining its development from ancient harvest festivals through its evolution in both British and American contexts. By analyzing cultural influences, traditions, and historical events, we can better understand the complex interplay between these two cultural narratives.


Ancient Harvest Festivals and Religious Traditions

The concept of giving thanks for a bountiful harvest is ancient and widespread, predating both American and British histories. Cultures around the world have celebrated similar festivals, often tied to agricultural cycles and religious practices. In Europe, harvest festivals were common in various forms, reflecting gratitude to deities or spirits for the year’s crops. These festivals typically involved feasting, prayers, and rituals to ensure future prosperity.


In Britain, traditions such as Lammas Day (celebrated on August 1st) and Harvest Home (a festival held at the end of the harvest season) bear similarities to aspects of Thanksgiving. Lammas Day, for instance, marks the first wheat harvest and involves giving thanks for the grain harvest. Harvest Home, on the other hand, celebrates the completion of the harvest with feasting and communal gatherings, akin to the spirit of Thanksgiving.

British Influence on Colonial America

The Pilgrims, English Puritans who sought religious freedom in the New World, played a crucial role in shaping the Thanksgiving tradition as it is known today. In 1620, they sailed aboard the Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. Facing harsh conditions and unfamiliar surroundings, they relied on their English heritage and religious customs to survive.

One such custom was the Harvest Festival, a tradition deeply rooted in English rural life. The Pilgrims adapted this tradition to their new circumstances, holding a celebratory feast in 1621 to give thanks for their first successful corn harvest. This event is often cited as America’s “first Thanksgiving,” although similar gatherings likely occurred earlier in other colonies.

The influence of British culture extended beyond the Pilgrims. Throughout the colonial period, English settlers brought with them their customs, including harvest celebrations and communal feasting practices. These traditions melded with Native American customs and local harvest festivals, contributing to the diverse tapestry of early American cultural practices.

Evolution of Thanksgiving in America

As the American colonies developed, so too did the Thanksgiving tradition. The holiday remained decentralized and varied in its observance until the 19th century. Presidents George Washington and John Adams issued occasional proclamations for days of thanksgiving, but it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent writer and editor, who campaigned for a national Thanksgiving Day.

In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln heeded Hale’s call and proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. Lincoln’s proclamation solidified Thanksgiving as a unifying national tradition, emphasizing gratitude, unity, and healing during a tumultuous period in American history.

Over time, Thanksgiving evolved into a deeply cherished holiday, blending elements of religious observance, familial reunion, and national identity. The iconic imagery of the Thanksgiving feast, complete with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, became firmly established in American culture through literature, art, and popular depictions.

Contrasting British Harvest Customs

While Thanksgiving in America grew to emphasize national unity and gratitude, harvest festivals in Britain took on a more regional and cultural diversity. In England, for example, traditions like the Michaelmas celebrations in September or the ancient customs associated with Plough Monday reflect localized customs rather than a unified national holiday.

The British Isles have a rich tapestry of harvest customs that vary by region and community. In Scotland, for instance, the Harvest Home celebrations are marked by songs, dances, and community meals. In Wales, the Harvest Festival known as “Noson Gyflaith” involves making and sharing toffee from the season’s first crops. These traditions underscore the regional diversity of harvest customs across the British Isles, contrasting with the more unified observance of Thanksgiving in America.

Cultural Significance and Symbolism

The symbolism of Thanksgiving is deeply rooted in American history and culture. Beyond its origins in colonial America, Thanksgiving has become a symbol of national identity, reflecting ideals of gratitude, community, and resilience. The image of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a harvest feast has been romanticized and perpetuated in popular culture, reinforcing narratives of cooperation and unity amidst diversity.

In contrast, British harvest customs emphasize local traditions and community spirit. These customs often highlight connections to the land, seasonal rhythms, and communal solidarity within specific regions or villages. While there are parallels in the themes of gratitude and celebration, the cultural meanings associated with British harvest festivals differ from the broader national narrative of Thanksgiving in America.

Contemporary Observance and Adaptation

Today, Thanksgiving remains a cherished holiday in the United States, celebrated with family gatherings, parades, football games, and charitable activities. The traditional Thanksgiving meal, featuring roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, has become a culinary emblem of the holiday season. Additionally, Thanksgiving has expanded beyond its religious and historical roots to embrace cultural diversity, with immigrants and non-Christian communities adapting the holiday to reflect their own traditions and values.

In recent decades, there has been a growing awareness of the complexities surrounding Thanksgiving’s historical narratives. Indigenous communities and scholars have raised concerns about the oversimplification of the Pilgrim-Indian relationship and the erasure of Native American perspectives in Thanksgiving lore. Efforts to acknowledge and honor Native American heritage during Thanksgiving have led to initiatives promoting education, cultural exchange, and reconciliation.

See also: Which Countries Have 1st May As A Public Holiday

Conclusion: A Transatlantic Perspective

In conclusion, Thanksgiving is undeniably an American holiday with deep historical roots and cultural significance. Its origins lie in British harvest traditions brought to the New World by English settlers, particularly the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. Over time, Thanksgiving evolved into a distinctively American celebration, symbolizing national unity, gratitude, and the enduring values of resilience and community.

While British harvest customs share thematic similarities with Thanksgiving, they remain distinct in their regional diversity and cultural expressions. Harvest festivals in the British Isles reflect local traditions, community identities, and seasonal rhythms, contrasting with the more centralized and nationally unified observance of Thanksgiving in America.

Therefore, while Thanksgiving’s origins may be traced to British harvest customs, its evolution and cultural significance firmly establish it as an American holiday. As such, Thanksgiving embodies a unique blend of historical legacy, cultural adaptation, and national symbolism that continues to resonate with millions of Americans each year.

In exploring the question of whether Thanksgiving is American or British, we recognize the interconnectedness of these cultural narratives while affirming Thanksgiving’s status as a cornerstone of American national identity and tradition.


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