November 23 is Thanksgiving. The holiday began as a celebration of the fall harvest, and has become a day when we are encouraged to appreciate and give thanks for the joys and blessings in our lives.
The earliest celebrations of thanksgiving in the Americas were observed by explorers from France and Spain in the 16th century. Annual thanksgiving services were being held in the colonies of what would become Virginia as early as 1607.
But when we think of the first Thanksgiving, we are usually referring to the 1621 fall harvest feast held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The historical record of that event is a bit thin – we aren't even sure exactly when the feast was held – but we do know that it lasted for three days, and that about 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans were in attendance. In part because we know so little, we have tended to both romanticize and sanitize the story. Nathaniel Philbrick separates fact from myth in telling the story of The First Thanksgiving (e-book), or at least as much of it as we know.
George Washington declared the first official Thanksgiving celebration in the United States, which was observed on November 26, 1789. Formal declarations of the holiday happened sporadically for the next 75 years. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed an annual Thanksgiving Day to be observed on the last Thursday in November, and all of the following presidents have done the same.
A small controversy broke out in 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt's proclamation set Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in a year with five Thursdays. He hoped that extended the holiday shopping season by a week would help to bring the country out of the Great Depression. Republicans called the change an insult to the memory of Lincoln, but the switch from "last Thursday" to "fourth Thursday" was made official by Congress in 1941. Melanie Kirkpatrick's Thanksgiving (e-book) offers a history of the holiday and its ever-changing role in American life.
Central to the modern Thanksgiving is the holiday feast. Most of the customary foods of the season – turkey, potato and sweet potato, cranberry, pumpkin and other squashes – are native to the Americas, and many of them were unknown to the Europeans who came here as settlers. There are many cookbooks devoted specifically to Thanksgiving. Mark Bittman offers the basics in How to Cook Everything Thanksgiving (e-book); recipes from several popular homemaking magazines are collected in Let's Talk Turkey... and All the Trimmings (e-book). Diane Morgan focuses on regional specialties in The New Thanksgiving Table (e-book, print); and Zel Allen says that you can have Thanksgiving without turkey if you're going Vegan for the Holidays (e-book, print).
For some families, the most important part of the feast is going around the table as each guest shares the things they are thankful for. If you're called upon to speak, you may take inspiration from Nancy Streza's Words of Thanksgiving: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations (e-book).
Also This Week
- November 24, 1867: Scott Joplin was born. When Joplin began writing music, ragtime was considered vulgar and unrefined music. Beginning with his first big success, "Maple Leaf Rag," Joplin changed that image, raising the piano rag to the artistic level of Sousa's marches or Strauss's waltzes. Joplin's 1911 opera, Treemonisha, received only partial stagings during his lifetime; the first full production didn't happen until 1972. Joplin's complete piano works and Treemonisha are both available for streaming.
- November 23, 1892: Erté was born. Erté was an artist who worked in many fields – illustration, set and costume design for film and theater, fashion, jewelry, interior design – and was noted for the sleek elegance of his designs. He continued to work as a designer until his death in 1990, and there was renewed interest in his work during the Art Deco revival of the 1960s. Erté designed the sets and costumes for Cecil B. DeMille's 1921 silent film The Affairs of Anatol, available for streaming at Kanopy.
- November 20, 1923: Nadine Gordimer was born. Gordimer was a South African writer and political activist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Her writing usually dealt with the moral and racial issues of South African life under apartheid. Gordimer was active in the anti-apartheid movement; after apartheid ended in 1994, much of her political energy was devoted to HIV/AIDS activism. Gordimer won the 1974 Booker Prize for her novel The Conservationist (e-book, e-aud), in which the life of a white businessman is disrupted when the body of an unidentified black man is found on his land.
- November 22, 1967: Mark Ruffalo was born. Ruffalo is an actor whose breakthrough film role came in the 2000 movie You Can Count On Me. He has received three Academy Award nominations, and currently plays The Hulk in the Marvel comic book movies. Ruffalo stars with Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, and Alecia Moore (also known as Pink) in Thanks for Sharing, a romantic comedy about members of a sexual-addiction support group, available for streaming at Hoopla.