A Special Note on Thanksgiving

Although Thanksgiving is not mentioned by name in the episode “Kiss and Tell,” the motifs of the Autumn Festival make it clear that the residents of Stars Hollow are preparing to celebrate it. Thanksgiving traditions are also depicted in the season three episode “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving.” On this page, I will briefly summarize the holiday’s historical background and explain some of its cultural significance. If you read nothing else on this page, please at least view the resources linked at the bottom.

The story begins on the ancestral land of the Patuxet, an Indigenous community belonging to the Wampanoag confederacy, in what is today known as Massachusetts. Like so many other Indigenous communities of this period, the Patuxet were devastated by European epidemics. Some Europeans viewed the spread of disease as divine intervention clearing the way for them in the Americas. King James of England thanked “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty toward us” for sending “this wonderful plague among the savages” (quoted in Sarah Vowell’s 2008 book The Wordy Shipmates). Only one Patuxet, Tisquantum (known to the English as Squanto), remained by the time the English ship, the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620.

Some of the Mayflower‘s passengers were Protestant Separatists fleeing religious persecution, economic hardship, and (what they viewed as) corrupting cultural influences in Europe. They regarded the so-called New World as a new Promised Land, a tabula rasa where they could establish their own theocracy without fear of repression by the powerful Church of England. Of course, this “New World” already had a history of millennia and a population of millions.

These Mayflower passengers have come to be known as Pilgrims, and though they are often conflated with Puritans, there is a distinction between them: while Pilgrims made a “pilgrimage” to the Americas, the Puritans were non-Separatist Protestants who remained in Europe and sought to reform, or “purify,” the Church of England from within.

The Pilgrims spent their first, brutal winter on the Atlantic coast onboard the Mayflower, and by the next year, more than half of their number had died. Their continued survival would not have been possible if not for the knowledge shared with them by the Wampanoag. Tisquantum had previously been captured and taken to Europe as a slave, lived as a freeman in England, and learned English as a result. He acted as a liaison between the Wampanoag and the English outsiders, and they brokered a peace treaty in 1621. That same year, the English completed a successful harvest season using the Wampanoags’ knowledge of the land, and they celebrated with a three-day feast of thanksgiving.

This festival is retroactively viewed as “the first Thanksgiving,” and what little we know about it comes from one eyewitness account, a 1621 letter by Englishman Edward Winslow. Just over 50 Pilgrims and twice as many Wampanoag are believed to have attended the feast, including the Wampanoag sachem or leader Ousemequin (known to the English as Chief Massasoit). How the Wampanoag came to attend the feast is unknown, but some historians have suggested that they happened to be in the area making diplomatic rounds at the time.

Many countries around the world observe their own Thanksgiving holidays, but the US Thanksgiving specifically recalls this 1621 feast. It has been celebrated intermittently since 1789, and annually since President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it in 1863. President Ulysses S. Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870. Since 1970, some Indigenous peoples of the Northeast have observed a National Day of Mourning on the same day as Thanksgiving in an act of protest. Since 1975, they have been joined by West Coast organizers who hold Unthanksgiving Day, or The Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, on Alcatraz Island in California. The entire month of November is Native American Heritage Month in the US, and the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day.

For many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, Thanksgiving has evolved into a tradition separate from its historical origins. Many associate Thanksgiving with a large meal, family gatherings, American football, Black Friday shopping, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (mentioned in episode two at 17:20). Traditional foods consumed on Thanksgiving include mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce, though these bear little resemblance to the foods likely eaten in 1621. Turkeys are considered the main course of the modern Thanksgiving meal, and an estimated 46 million of them are killed per year for Thanksgiving alone.

There is pain bound up in the holiday for many people, including those who participate in some of its associated traditions. Please view the following sources for more detailed accounts of “the first Thanksgiving” and the violence of colonization, as well as Indigenous individuals’ personal reflections on the holiday. I would also recommend Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2014 book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, not just to those interested in the Indigenous American experience, but to anyone interested in who we are, as a nation, and how we came to be.

  • Cut YouTube video – Indigenous individuals do word association in response to the word “Thanksgiving.”
  • Smithsonian Magazine article – Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota writer Dennis Zotigh consolidates Indigenous responses to the question of whether they celebrate Thanksgiving and what it means to them.
  • Time Magazine article – Oglala Lakota Sioux chef and author Sean Sherman shares his childhood experiences of Thanksgiving and discusses the cultural origins of the US tradition.
  • Native Hope webpage – Provides an Indigenous perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday and the concept of thanksgiving.
  • Native Knowledge 360° webpage – Offers resources for educators.