Thanksgiving: The Past and Present

Thanksgiving: The Past and Present

David Mohrmann

With Thanksgiving arriving soon, it is an appropriate time to look back on the very first Thanksgiving in comparison to today. Thanksgiving is an annual national holiday in the United States, traditionally used as a day to celebrate the harvest. However, today it is more commonly used as a day to gather with friends and family, celebrate our blessings of the past year, and gorging ourselves with delicious food. It is a commonly shared belief that this holiday is modeled on a feast in 1621 shared by the English colonists of Plymouth, or pilgrims, and the Wampanoag people, but what else do we know about this holiday? What will celebrations look like with cases of the Coronavirus on the rise? 

In 1621, the Pilgrims were celebrating their first harvest in the New World with an elaborate feast lasting over three days. This was attended by the Native Americans, who assisted the Pilgrims the previous winter by giving them food at that time of scarcity. Long before settlers arrived, however, Native tribes were celebrating the autumn harvest and the gift of the Earth’s abundance. The holiday of Thanksgiving originates from the Native American philosophy of giving without expecting anything in return, which is exemplified by the role they played in the feast of 1621. Not only did the Wampanoag tribe provide food for the feast, but also passed on the teachings of agriculture and hunting to the newly arrived settlers. Sadly, however, this kindness was not reciprocated by many of the settlers. For example, there were massacres of Native tribes like the Pequot in the following years, as well as centuries of oppression.  This tension of the past still exists today. For example, for the last 48 years, the United American Indians of New England have organized a rally and day of mourning on November 22nd to “honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.” Perhaps we can use this Thanksgiving not only as a time of celebration, but as an opportunity to reflect and give thanks for the blessings we have, including blessings given to us by people who expect nothing in return, like our parents and family.

Today, the Thanksgiving celebration largely centers around eating a large meal, almost always including turkey. Americans commonly celebrate this holiday by gathering with loved ones and give thanks for the things they feel fortunate for in their lives. Many attend a Thanksgiving day parade and have unique traditions they participate in. For others, football plays an important role, as they watch the NFL game that has aired every Thanksgiving since the creation of the league. Senior Thomas Johnson says, “My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving Day Football.” Other students have traditions that are more unique to them, such as senior Will Dolan who says, “I loved walking down to Wash U’s Francis Field and playing football with my family and cousins or anyone else that wandered onto the field. We are not able to do that this year with social distancing, so we are going to be playing kickball instead.” Sharing a sentiment of many, the favorite thing about this holiday for senior Aidan Phillips is “not feeling self-conscious for eating a lot of food because everyone else is doing it too.” 

Despite the attachment that many have for their unique traditions, the way Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated for them may be out of reach or unrealistic with COVID-19 numbers rising and the importance of safety being the main concern for most people. For example, senior Aidan Phillips says, “As of now, my family probably won’t have a large get-together for a Thanksgiving meal or anything. We’re trying to be as safe as we can about COVID-19, so we’re probably going to have to sacrifice the holiday season.” Others still remain determined to proceed with their celebrations while staying cautious to remain safe. Will Dolan says, “I think we are picking up turkey from restaurants this year, and eating with our grandparents from a distance.” Others may be in a situation such as Thomas Johnson’s family who have had plans set to travel or have a more elaborate celebration but have had these plans set back to make for a more normal Thanksgiving. Johnson says, “We always stay in town for Thanksgiving to perform our traditions, but this year we were planning on going to visit my dad’s family. Coronavirus helped lead to the cancellation of our trip so it’s back to normal Thanksgiving for us!”

Thanksgiving is an important holiday for our country as it allows us a time to celebrate and reflect on all that we are grateful for, but perhaps it is necessary to put our traditional celebrations on hold this holiday season and be mindful of what is most important to us: the health and safety of our loved ones.