Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ 1912 painting, “The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” presents an idealized portrayal of a feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. 

Anyone familiar with American history should understand that blissful scenes in Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ 1912 painting, “The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” reproduced above, presents an idealized perspective that ignored the death and destruction visited upon the Native Americans by European colonists.  The goal of this post is not to defend this characterization, nor to criticize it, but to examine the role of harvest festivals independent from Ferris’ romanticized portrayal of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.  As explained below, my thesis is that a harvest festival is a natural, necessary part of a midwinter celebration, and Thanksgiving, in turn, is as much a part of the Christmas season as December 25 or New Year’s Day. 

Most of our Christmas season consists of secular elements that were part of the Roman midwinter celebrations hundreds of years before Christ was born.  The Roman celebration had three basic parts: a harvest festival, which the Romans called Saturnalia and Americans call Thanksgiving; the birth of the pagan sun gods, Sol Invictus or Mithras, or Jesus Christ on the Winter Solstice itself; and the arrival of a new year, an event which is universally celebrated in every culture.  Many of the most significant features of midwinter celebrations–bringing in the fall harvest, making wine and brewing ale, butchering fresh meat, decorating the home or public places with evergreens, hanging mistletoe, lighting candles (or bonfires), feasting on the traditional meal of your choice, drinking a traditional alcoholic beverage or two, gambling, dressing in costume, singing traditional songs, and generally having as good a time as possible–began with the midwinter rituals in Rome and continue today.

The fascinating aspect of those holidays in America is not that they now exist but how they developed despite initial resistance by many of the colonists.  The first surviving settlement in the northeastern American colonies was by a group of English Puritans, commonly known as the Pilgrims, who docked their ship, The Mayflower, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.  While Ferris’ “The First Thanksgiving” is glamorized to the point of incredibility, every American schoolchild knows the story of how the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 by inviting the Native Americans who had helped them survive the winter.

What most children are not taught is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as it was originally known, formally prohibited the celebration of Christmas entirely, whether that meant solemn attendance at church or festive enjoyment of a day off, and provided fines for those who were caught violating the rules.  The Puritans’ objections to Christmas were both theological and social. The theological basis was that the Bible identified only the Sabbath as a day of rest and said nothing about keeping Christmas, which the Puritans believed, more or less correctly, was a pagan invention.  The social objection was that Christmas was “popish,” a sentiment reflecting their dislike of the Catholic Church, and a “wanton Bacchanalian feast,” reflecting their distaste for earthly pleasures more generally.   This attitude was demonstrated as early as 1621 when Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony reprimanded several young men for shirking work and playing ball on Christmas Day.  

Another factor explaining the New England attitude towards Christmas, however, is that New England had another holiday, Thanksgiving, as a day of feasting and relaxation that served some of the secular functions of a midwinter festival without the religious conflict.  The name Thanksgiving was not a New England creation; it was relatively common for secular or religious officials to declare a day of thanksgiving for some important event.  More importantly, the essence of Thanksgiving was a fall harvest festival, something that occurred in most agricultural societies for thousands of years, and that the Catholic Church has formalized as Martinmas on November 11, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.  In other words, what we call Thanksgiving existed long before, and independent of, the feast of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. 

The current holiday actually dates from the mid-1800s, when New Englanders led by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies’ Book, a highly popular women’s magazine, pushed for recognition of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  In October 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln finally assented to the persistent lobbying of Hale and other New Englanders, declaring the last Thursday of November a “general day of Thanksgiving.”  As the entire nation began to celebrate Thanksgiving, the celebration of Christmas became more generalized, and New Englanders began warming to it.  

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, national newspapers and magazines–most prominently, Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine–began to fill their pages during December with elaborate illustrations of Santa Claus and reprints of “The Night Before Christmas” that, for the first time, created practices that flourished throughout America.  During the Civil War, a number of states on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line that had not previously declared Christmas as a holiday did so, and in 1870 Congress formally declared Christmas as a federal holiday.

One can view the national recognition of Thanksgiving and Christmas within a few years of each other as a compromise similar to that in which early Eastern Christians agreed to mark the birth of Christ on December 25 if Western Christians agreed to mark January 6 as Epiphany.  Ultimately, the period between Christmas and Epiphany became celebrated as the Twelve Days of Christmas, unifying the two days into a single holiday period that began with Advent on the Sunday closest to November 30, and ended with Epiphany on January 6.  In the United States, New Year’s Day has been recognized as a holiday since the nation obtained its independence, and the recognition of Thanksgiving and Christmas as national holidays less than a decade apart created the modern Christmas season we celebrate today.  Christmas became part of a midwinter cycle of activities that begins with Thanksgiving and ends, depending on religion and local practices, on either New Year’s Day or Epiphany (January 6). 

Tom A. Jerman