The Modern Invention of Thanksgiving

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tags: Thanksgiving

When you think of the history of Thanksgiving, you’d be hard-pressed not to picture funny Pilgrim hats and stereotyped Native Americans. These days, most of us know that the sanitized story we learned in grade school bears little resemblance to the real history of the Plymouth colony. But it might still come as a surprise to hear that, as Anne Blue Wills argues in a 2003 article in Church History, Thanksgiving as we know it was deliberately invented in the nineteenth century.

Wills traces the holiday’s traditions, the reunions of dispersed families in their childhood homes and the tables groaning under the weight of turkey and stuffing and pie, to the popular magazines that were beginning to give the nation a more unified culture in the mid-1800s. In particular, she writes that Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine “badgered national leaders” to formally recognize the holiday, which Abraham Lincoln did in 1863.

While colonial celebrations of Thanksgiving revolved around religious belief, Hale’s vision of the holiday was, above all, about America’s history and place in the world. The existing patriotic holidays of Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July both had a military element. In contrast, Thanksgiving celebrated America’s moral power and the domestic “women’s sphere.”

Read entire article at JStor

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