In 1863, New Hampshire author Sarah Josepha Hale convinced President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. It was already a popular observance in New England. So what is Thanksgiving, really?
1) It’s the US’s first secular- spiritual national holiday not related to the government or military (Memorial Day, the Fourth, etc). While it allows for a religious interpretation, it doesn’t require one. In fact, there’s not much you can even do for it with regards to religion. It belongs to no specific faith- the original observers were Christians and Sarah Josepha Hale has a feast day in the Episcopalian calendar but Christianity is not required. It’s not in any way based on any event from the Bible, nor is it based on an event from the life of a saint or any principles specifically related to Christianity. It’s, from the perspective of world history, a fairly new holiday and is only celebrated in North America (Canada celebrates Thanksgiving but earlier in the fall), which means that to most of the world’s Christians, it barely exists at all. It’s not really part of the global Christian liturgy. There isn’t even much Americans can do in a religious sense, there isn’t much of a formal liturgy and the repertoire of Thanksgiving songs is limited. Also, it’s always, always, on a Thursday, so if your denomination or specific local congregation doesn’t provide a Thursday service or have any tradition of activities taking place on Thursdays, you won’t have a choice about not going to church.
Pretty much anyone with religious beliefs can just sort of slot their own in, but if you don’t have any beliefs, that completely doesn’t interfere in the slightest with your observance of the day. You can be as vaguely spiritual, or even not spiritual at all, as you want. No one is going to shame you for not mentioning God or not being in church.
And then, of course, a second, unofficial holiday has sprung up in the wake of late 20th century Thanksgiving celebrations, called Black Friday (and the more recently invented, Cyber Monday). Black Friday celebrates the only religion most Americans can all agree on, that of rampant consumerism. It’s a day when stores liquidate all of the past season’s stock at rock bottom prices and Americans descend on the stores in a rabid feeding frenzy, a mindless orgy of shopping during which stores have been vandalized, and customers have been injured or killed.
You're the only one who knows how to work the register!
2) The foods generally consumed are also generally specifically American in origin. And more specifically, they were all at one time plentiful in New England.
The Turkey is essentially native to North America. It resembles a bird found in Turkey the country but the kind we eat on Thanksgiving is native to North America ( early turkey fossils have been found in Virginia, and giant prehistoric birds with turkeylike wattles and the same color and style of plumage roamed). I don’t know about other places but wild turkeys routinely roam my neighborhood in the fall. I have to snicker at anyone who says “the Pilgrims wouldn’t have eaten turkey”, because I have still photos and video footage of wild turkeys frolicking around the coastal New England countryside.
Corn, aka Maize, a common component of stuffings , breads and side dishes on Thanksgiving, is native to here. While the Midwest is the country’s main producer of corn (boy HOWDY are they) it was the Indians of Virginia and Massachusetts who first showed the British how to grow and cook, corn. Presumably, the West Coast natives taught the Spanish the same thing but you know, that doesn’t count.
Cape Cod and the Massachusetts coastline (where the Pilgrims landed) are well known for their cranberry bogs. In fact, when I was in elementary school we used to watch a series of animated films about a town on the New England coast and the uh…trials and tribulations surrounding their cranberry bog.
Algonquin Cranberry Sauce
While Idaho is more famous for its potatoes, Maine is also a huge producer of the crop. In fact, it used to be such a big industry in rural Maine that kids would be given time off school to help with the potato harvests.
Pumpkins, another New World food, are also prevalent in Thanksgiving dishes.
Thanksgiving's War Metaphor
It’s significant that Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday right in the middle of the Civil War.
The story is about two groups of people who hold very different beliefs, who experience a horrible event and instead of turning on each other, come together to help each other and show a spirit of neighborliness. This is NOT how it really happened. Any peace between the Indians and British settlers was short lived (the Spanish were as bad as the British btw) and multiple small wars and much larger genocides followed, from open war such as The French and Indian War, King Philip’s War and battle after battle while “winning the West”, to open genocide like The Trail of Tears and silent, hidden genocide like The Vermont Eugenics Society. So the Thanksgiving story is… controversial among Native Americans and very left wing white people. But The idea that two warring tribes can come together after mutual tragedy and do something they can all agree on, namely, sharing the natural bounty of a harvest (aka “if stuffing our faces until we explode is the only thing we can definitely all agree on, then at least that’s a start”), was something people genuinely needed to hear about after the war. So, if thinking about the Pilgrims and Indians story as an…embellished metaphor… about the Civil War makes it easier, you could try that.
When Lee surrendered, Grant asked him about the condition of his troops, and Lee admitted they were starving. Grant gifted him with a giant pile of Union rations. The signing of the peace treaty was witnessed by one of Grant’s staff members who happened to be a Seneca Indian.