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400 Years of Thanksgiving: More Important Than Christmas

In Germany, what is known as "Erntedankfest" is an annual celebration marking the main period of harvest in different given regions. Just like Thanksgiving in the US, both celebrations are based on a Christian tradition of giving thanks for the year's harvest. But the US national holiday is deeply rooted in American society. For many families, it is even more important than Christmas.

Thanksgiving formally fell on the final Thursday in November, as proclaimed by then US President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In 1941, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national holiday to the fourth Thursday of the month.

The tradition itself is attributed to the English settlers who came to be known as the Pilgrims, who had set off for North America and established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. The Puritanist Separatists had previously lived in exile in the Netherlands because they had renounced the Church in their English homeland and were persecuted for their religious beliefs. The Pilgrims practiced a radical Christianity that was based solely on the Bible and even rejected bishops as an invention of Satan.

Women and children were among the Pilgrim Fathers

Even though they are also known as the Pilgrim Fathers, there were also women, children and men who had little interest in their faith and were more likely to be considered adventurers among the 102 passengers who set sail on a ship called the Mayflower on September 16, 1620.

Eventually, the Mayflower, a 30-meter-long three-master, landed further south than planned due to storms, in what is now Provincetown in Massachusetts. Because the Pilgrims did not have enough supplies and agriculture was not possible on the sandy soils, they soon moved on to the other side of the bay, where they founded the Plymouth Colony in December 1620.

The settlers survived the winter only with the help of the Indigenous people of the Wampanoag tribe, who provided them with food and taught them the local farming techniques.

A day of remembrance for the Indigenous people

In the fall of 1621, settlers and natives celebrated a three-day festival: Thanksgiving. Turkey, corn and sweet potatoes were on the table — a tradition that has endured to this day. The peaceful coexistence of the settlers and the Wampanoag tribe was an exception at that time, which from the 1630s onwards was increasingly characterized by violence.

For many Native American descendants, Thanksgiving is rather a day to commemorate the genocide by European settlers and the loss of their land and ancestors.

The Pilgrim Fathers were not the first Europeans to colonize North America, and similar celebrations of the harvest were also held before their arrival. Still, the first feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 has established itself as the origin of Thanksgiving in the United States.

The tradition of the US president pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving is not that old. It is said to go back to Abraham Lincoln, who was the president from 1861 to 1865. But the ceremony was not formally introduced until 1989, under George Bush Senior. Nonetheless, as a result of their breeding, the pardoned turkeys usually die within a year.

Adopted internationally: Black Friday

With families from across the country gathering for Thanksgiving, many also take the Friday off after the holiday to celebrate over the long weekend. And like many other traditional celebrations, it is now linked with consumerism. The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, the day stores launch the Christmas shopping season with highly discounted prices. Unlike eating turkey the day before, this tradition has now spread around the world.

This text has been translated from German.

Source: DW

Story first published: Thursday, November 25, 2021, 18:20 [IST]