Mr. Russell’s Classroom: A history of ‘Thanksgiving’ in the midst of adversity

With less than two weeks until Thanksgiving, you may be finishing your grocery list for the big meal, but what you may not know is what we usually have on our tables is a little different than what was on the first Thanksgiving menu.

“They had clams and oysters and lobster,” said Dr. Edward Lee, History Professor at Winthrop University “Then they had the vegetables that were right there in the land.”

So scratch your favorite Thanksgiving sides, but Dr. Lee says the pilgrims and Native Americans of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 did have turkeys, venison and geese thanks to a fowling mission.

“They had to get the turkeys and drag them back and they were not butterball turkeys,” Dr. Lee.

But the pilgrims did have a lot to be thankful for, more than many of us may realize.

“Half of the colonists of Plymouth 399 years ago when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, half of the colonists had been decimated and died from disease and so there were only 50 pilgrims left,” said Dr. Lee.

That was only a year after the Mayflower made it to Plymouth Rock.

“Those first colonists had really tough times, but they did survive,” said Dr. Lee.  “So, they paused and they shared and they remembered the people who weren’t there and in a sense, they broke bread together.”

A sentiment that would be shared when President George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving an official holiday “of sincere and humble thanks to God” after the American Revolution on November 26th 1789.

“George Washington said in 1789, we need to pause, and we need to talk about how far we’ve come and how we need to stick together as a country,” said Dr. Lee.

Some 70 plus years later, Lee says in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made a similar proclamation.

“We had lost hundreds of thousands of Americans on the battlefield, north and south and still we paused in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln was president, and we thought we thought this is where we are and what are we going to be as a people?” added Dr. Lee.

Then in 1939, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November.

“Franklin Roosevelt said we need to do something to stimulate the economy,” said Lee. “So he tried to move the date around for Thanksgiving trying to get the merchants more time to make money, and a lot of people didn’t like that. Congress stepped in 1941 and said it’s going to be the fourth Thursday of November and that’s what it is.”

And for years parades, football games, and even Thanksgiving Day shopping have become our normal. So, what happens in this year of “new norms” when so many of our comforts will look different or not happen at all?

Perhaps this Thanksgiving will look more like the ones in our history books. Times that challenge us, force us to reflect, and even in the midst of unknowns… give thanks.

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