If you live in the US, you are familiar with Thanksgiving. You cannot escape it. As of 12:01 am on November 1st, our thoughts as a nation become fixated on turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pie. For an entire month, potential hosts scour the Internet for ways to make the turkey even juicier, creative ways to fold napkins, centerpiece ideas, irresistible dips, and how to steer uncle Harold away from the single-malt. The rest of us start shopping around for pants that expand at the waist while remaining somewhat dressy.
Yeah, most of us pause to actually give thanks before plowing through plates heaped again and again with simple carbs, but Thanksgiving is such a tradition in this country, it's really easy to take it for granted. Seriously, have you ever stopped to contemplate just what exactly you're doing there? Why so much food? Why does the whole family have to come? Why do they stay so late?
It's a Harvest Festival
At the very heart of it, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival - possibly mankind's oldest tradition. As far back as the beginning of the Neolithic age when people became less nomadic and planted crops instead of foraging, we have been commemorating the end of the harvest. This behavior exists in most cultures, whether as a religious holiday or a secular tradition, and the feast is a constant.
The purpose of the festival is to share the bounty of the harvest with others - although traditionally, instead of a hosted dinner, it was more of a potluck. The corn grower brought the corn, the turkey rancher brought the turkey, the family with cows brought butter, etc. In short, it was more of a collective effort. The whole community would get together at harvest time to make sure everyone's crops got brought in and the surplus stored for the winter, and this was a way of giving mutual thanks as well as thanking the Earth or whatever deity for the bounty.
It's a happy, festive occasion because everyone had generally just spent a month or so working their butts off to get the harvest in on time - once the work is over, it's time to celebrate.
Festival vs. Service
Some religions hold Thanksgiving services that are entirely separate from what we normally think of as Thanksgiving, although they are generally rooted in the same harvest time tradition. It's basically just a more formalized thanking of God for the bounty, reasoning that he created the land and provided the optimal (or not) weather conditions that produced the crops. When the harvest was small due to drought, pests, floods or some other natural cause, these services were also used as a sort of atonement - as in, 'we didn't thank God sincerely enough last year, so we'd better thank harder this year, and maybe bring an offering'.
Historians believe that religious Thanksgiving services may have been held in Texas as early as 1598 by Spanish explorers, but the first 'official' festival-type Thanksgiving was in Virginia in 1619.
It's Actually Quite New
So Thanksgiving's been around forever, right? It's an ancient tradition steeped in our Neolithic roots. We've been doing it the same way for millennia!
Well, not exactly. Thanksgiving festivals were generally held at the end of the harvest, period. No fixed date. First of all, calendars are a relatively recent invention. Second of all, the exact date everyone in the world celebrated the harvest was irrelevant to you, because travel was difficult and rare for most agrarian societies - you celebrated with your family and community when it made sense based on your particular harvest, which was based on your particular climate.
The fourth Thursday in November was officially declared Thanksgiving by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. That's right, your grandparents were alive then. Canada's Thanksgiving is celebrated in early October - can you guess why? Because winter comes sooner in northern climes, which means the harvest is earlier, and the whole thing is based on the harvest.
As much as we look forward to Thanksgiving, you must admit the meal itself isn't very impressive outside of its size. Seriously, a roasted bird, some mashed roots and pie. No culinary creativity here. Why the same foods every year? The harvest, silly! These were the foods that everyone worked so hard to bring in before the festival. They are foods that ripen in the fall. That's why you generally don't find watermelon and strawberries on the table. Traditional Thanksgiving foods are those that were available in abundance at festival time.
Over time, regional tastes began to creep in - New England oyster stuffing, etc., but even most of these specialties are made from foods available locally. The marshmallows on the sweet potatoes don't count - those are manufactured, not grown, and they are part of no harvest.
So while the date itself may be a recent development, realize what a tradition you take part in every year. It's a characteristic of humankind, something that has been going on this planet since the advent of agriculture. So take a minute to realize that before you find yourself face-down in the gravy.