American Thanksgiving
Jess Chartier
Jess Chartier • Nov 23

American Thanksgiving

by Jess Chartier

Throughout my husband’s military career, we had the opportunity to meet and share time with several foreign officers living and working in the United States. They came from places like Australia, Germany, Korea, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. Some were annoyed by American life. Some loved it, but universally, they were fascinated with the idea of American Thanksgiving. ‘Is it a religious holiday? Are the meals as large and lavish as the movies portrayed? Is pumpkin pie a real thing?  What is green bean casserole? Why is it such a Thing?’ they asked. Some of these questions were easy to answer.  Yes, the meals are big and varied for those who can afford them. Yes, pumpkin pie is real. Green bean casserole is an abomination (I’m willing to die on this hill). But how to explain the cultural significance of a holiday?

More than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving is about celebrating family in all its forms.

Historians will tell you that Thanksgiving was born out of the European tradition of the harvest festival.  It’s generally accepted that the first Thanksgiving in the U.S. occurred when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered for a harvest meal in the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts in 1621.  They didn’t call it Thanksgiving, of course, but it was a celebration of the harvest. They shared a table and meal. They likely ate fowl of some kind. This event would become the inspiration for the “modern” idea of Thanksgiving, but not until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November for a national day of thanksgiving. Now, Lincoln wasn’t the first president to declare a day of thanksgiving, nor was this even the first one he declared. President George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the ratification of the constitution. Lincoln himself declared a day of thanksgiving and remembrance for the widows and family members who lost loved ones during the battle of Gettysburg. But in 1863, nearly 20 years after Mrs Sarah Joseph, Hale began a letter-writing campaign to establish a permanent and fixed day of national thanksgiving, and Lincoln did just that. And thus, Thanksgiving was born.  

In those days, America was deep in its Protestant roots, and Thanksgiving was a day set aside to thank the Christian God for his provision and providence collectively. In that way, while not technically a religious holiday, Thanksgiving has always been grounded in the spiritual practice of gratitude. Over the years, Thanksgiving has evolved into a more secular holiday, but the spirit of gratitude imbued in its beginning persists. The focus of that gratitude has shifted away from the harvest and toward the family. More than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving is about celebrating family in all its forms. It’s about spending time together, sharing a meal, breaking bread in a sacred time and space. Yes, there is turkey (or ham or tamales or Chinese takeaway), and yes, there are parades and sports. But undercutting all that is tradition and togetherness. There is a celebration of the things that bind us together. Our shared joys and sorrows. Our collective experience and our individual contributions. That is the heart of Thanksgiving.   

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Our shared joys and sorrows. Our collective experience and our individual contributions. That is the heart of Thanksgiving.

This year, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving with my in-laws. We’ll watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We’ll cook all day, making all our favourites. We’ll watch football and go for a long walk after dinner. We’ll have pie and coffee as a nightcap. And all along the way, we’ll chat and laugh and tell stories to the kids. We’ll enjoy and give thanks for being together.  

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Jess Chartier
Jess Chartier

Jess Chartier is a full time mom and part time writer who resides in the Southern United States. She is a self professed “professional volunteer” who has spent more than 20 years giving her time and talents to organizations which serve women, children and families in her community. Find her on Instagram @alabama_mansion.

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