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The Evolution of Thanksgiving in New Jersey

November 22, 2023 The Evolution of Thanksgiving in New Jersey

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday in the United States, marked by family gatherings, feasting, and gratitude. However, the history of Thanksgiving in the country is more complex than the popular myths suggest. Let’s explore the origins and evolution of Thanksgiving, especially in the state of New Jersey. From Native American customs to colonial traditions to modern celebrations, Thanksgiving in New Jersey has undergone significant changes in its meaning and practice.

The earliest precursors of Thanksgiving in New Jersey can be traced back to the spiritual and agricultural ceremonies of the Lenape people, the indigenous inhabitants of the region before the arrival of European colonizers. According to some accounts, the Lenape celebrated a harvest festival called the Green Corn Ceremony in late summer or early autumn, which included offerings, music, dance, and fasting. The concept of giving thanks for the bounty of nature and the community was thus already embedded in the local culture when the Dutch and English started to establish settlements in the 17th century.

One of the most famous events associated with the colonial origins of Thanksgiving was the feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. However, New Jersey played a role, too, in the spread and variations of Thanksgiving practices in the following centuries. For instance, in 1668, the town of Elizabethtown decreed that Thanksgiving should be celebrated annually on the last Wednesday of November, a tradition that lasted until the 19th century. In 1777, during the Revolutionary War, Governor William Livingston proclaimed that December 18 should be observed as a day of thanksgiving and prayer for the recent American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Similarly, during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate states declared days of thanksgiving for various reasons, such as victories, peace, or blessings.

However, it was not until the 19th century that Thanksgiving became a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of prominent figures such as Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who lobbied various presidents and politicians to formalize and unify the celebration. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally issued the proclamation that designated the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving Day, to be observed by all states and territories. This decision sparked controversies and debates over the commercialization, secularization, and political implications of Thanksgiving, but it also reinforced the idea of Thanksgiving as a symbol of national unity, gratitude, and patriotism.

In New Jersey, Thanksgiving continued to evolve and diversify in the 20th century and beyond. For many families and communities, Thanksgiving remains a time of religious devotion, charitable acts, and traditional dishes such as turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. However, Thanksgiving has also become a platform for various social, cultural, and political expressions, such as parades, football games, shopping sprees, volunteering, and protests. For instance, in recent years, some Native American advocates and allies have organized alternative events such as National Day of Mourning or Unthanksgiving Day to raise awareness about the ongoing legacy of colonialism. Similarly, some critics have challenged the myths and misrepresentations of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.

Thanksgiving in New Jersey is not just a static or monolithic celebration, but a dynamic and nuanced phenomenon that reflects the complex and changing identities, aspirations, and values of the people who observe it. Whether we embrace or critique Thanksgiving, or both, we can learn from its history to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the past and present, and of one another. As we gather around the table, or participate in other forms of Thanksgiving, let us also reflect on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and on the ways in which we can cultivate compassion, justice, and respect for all. Happy Thanksgiving!