As you’re sitting down to your turkey dinner on November 22, with the sound of another Detroit Lions defeat still ringing in your ears (disclosure—the author is a Michigan native), keep in mind that Thanksgiving is more than just an occasion to get together with family and consume astronomical levels of tryptophan.
It’s also a day to celebrate civic ideals—on this quintessentially American holiday, we explore who we are and what makes us a people.
Thanksgiving’s roots go back to the earliest days of European colonization. In 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a thanksgiving service for his men when they found a source of food and water in present-day Texas.
Virginians led by John Woodlief gave thanks after their safe arrival at Berkeley Plantation in 1619. And of course, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1621—it’s their celebration that informs so many of our traditions today.
Thanksgiving grew up with the United States, as settlers from New England carried their folkways along with them on their migrations to the west. Some of our greatest presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—have played their own parts in turning Thanksgiving into a day for all Americans to celebrate family, tradition, and American ideals.
The actions of these leaders were complemented by everyday citizens like Sarah Josepha Hale, who led the 19th-century charge to get Thanksgiving recognized as an annual national observance.
Today, the day brings us together to participate in two of our favorite rituals—eating food and watching football, including the aforementioned Lions, who have played a game on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1934.
Thanksgiving also has room for the voices of those who have been displaced by the history of European colonization, as Day of Mourning observances call attention to the historical plight of America’s native peoples.
This November, find out more about Thanksgiving’s place in our history and our culture by watching “The History of Thanksgiving” episode of Constitution Hall Pass, our free, fun, and fascinating webcast and live chat series. You can ask our staff questions as you watch the episode on constitutioncenter.org and learn some fun facts to share at the dinner table this year. And when the big feast day comes, remember that Thanksgiving is a celebration of citizenship, community, and the American spirit.
Mark Kehres is the Museum Programs and Training Manager at the National Constitution Center. He is the writer and host of Constitution Hall Pass.
Constitution Daily Thanksgiving Stories
Hold the eels? A Founding Fathers Thanksgiving meal
The real story behind the presidential turkey pardon
Celebrate Thanksgiving with “Constitution Hall Pass”