History of Thanksgiving
Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D., Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City, interviewed by Anita Gurian, Ph.D., Senior Content Editor of AboutOurKids.org
AG: This is a time in the history of our country when our population includes people who come from many different parts of the world. Has Thanksgiving only recently come to reflect diversity?
MFB: It is worthwhile to remember that diversity is not new to America. The adults and children who feasted at the very first thanksgivings held in Plymouth in 1621 were themselves immigrants who were joined by Native-Americans who were, in fact, the first settlers in North America.
AG: Have Americans been celebrating Thanksgiving since the early 1600s? Have they always celebrated Thanksgiving for the same reasons and with the same rituals?
MFB: Thanksgiving was not uniformly celebrated until major efforts to nationalize it were undertaken late in the nineteenth century. It was during the Civil War, in fact, that President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, though several presidents before him (namely Washington and Jefferson) had issued similar proclamations. While their aims differed from Lincoln's it was his hope that Thanksgiving would reunite the country.
An important antebellum editor and writer named Sarah Josepha Hale had been promoting the holiday for decades before Lincoln's proclamation. Addressing the anxieties of many middle-class Americans like herself, Hale believed that Thanksgiving would strengthen family traditions, solidify the role of women as mothers, and allay fears about industrialization.
Despite these influences, other groups, such as Pennsylvania Lutherans, African-Americans, and Southerners, celebrated Thanksgiving in very different ways than those in New England. For instance, while African-Americans went to church on Thanksgiving, men in rural Pennsylvania and New York City masqueraded at parades and parties until the late 1800s.
AG: What role have children played in Thanksgiving celebrations?
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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