Exploring American Traditions – From Thanksgiving to Independence Day


In 1870 Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Christmas, and Independence Day federal holidays. Since then, the President has had the discretion to set the date for the holiday.

Americans often associate these events with their religious beliefs or with family traditions. But they also have their own unique customs for celebrating these holidays.

The Origins of Thanksgiving

Today, we celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday to give thanks for the bounty of our land and seas. But that wasn’t always the case. The holiday only became a national event in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be observed annually in November. It was a response to the trauma of the Civil War and an attempt to promote unity.

Before the Civil War, Thanksgiving festivals occurred sporadically on a local basis and usually celebrated the autumn harvest. In 1789, Massachusetts congressman Elias Boudinot moved that a national day of thanksgiving be established in order to thank God for America’s freedoms. However, Thomas Jefferson refused to endorse the celebration as he believed that it violated the separation of church and state. The celebration continued sporatically until 1863 when Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted the holiday as a day to unite the nation through feasting and themes of family and national remembrance.

The wholesome tale of Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a peaceful, celebratory meal to mark the survival of Plymouth colony was created to reinforce the theme of unity and national identity. In this narrative, Native people play a supporting role as the Pilgrims persevere and adapt to their new homeland. The story also downplays the brutal nature of colonial warfare and the systematic oppression of Indigenous communities.

For example, the holiday myth ignores the major cause of King Philip’s War-the relentless seizure of Native land. It also hides the fact that Wampanoag men and women were enslaved and sold into indentured servitude and debt peonage.

As American cities grew and families began to live farther apart, Thanksgiving evolved into a day to gather for feasts and football games. In the late 1800s Gimbel’s department store staged a parade of costumed revelers and in 1924 Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving parade with animals from Central Park Zoo. The parade eventually became famous for its balloons and has been the highlight of the holiday since 1927. In addition, NFL, college and high school football teams host games on Thanksgiving.

The Origins of Independence Day

The United States is a large and diverse country, with a rich variety of traditions and customs. While some of these are shared with other countries, such as Thanksgiving and Halloween, many are unique to the American way of life. The Fourth of July is an example. It is a celebration of our nation’s independence and an important symbol of the qualities that make America special.

The holiday’s roots can be traced to 1776, when the first Continental Congress voted on independence from Britain. Hostilities with the British actually began a year earlier, however, at Lexington and Concord. After the vote for independence, Congress worked to draft a declaration that would explain the reason for the separation. It took two days to agree on a final draft, which was signed on July 4, 1776.

In the years that followed, Independence Day became a popular date for Americans to hold events and express their dissenting political views. For example, abolitionists used the holiday to honor those who had died in the struggle for freedom and remind others that the Revolution’s promise of liberty was still not realized for all Americans. During the Civil War, Independence Day was used by those who supported the Confederacy to demonstrate their loyalty. After the war, observances of Independence Day continued to increase and by 1870, Congress passed a law making the holiday a federal one.

By the 19th century, Independence Day had become a time for picnics, parades, fireworks displays and concerts featuring patriotic music. It also became a day for families to celebrate together. By the early 20th century, the popularity of heavy drinking and the number of injuries caused by setting off fireworks prompted reformers to mount a “Safe and Sane Fourth of July” movement.

While some of these efforts have been successful, the holiday’s status as a family gathering and celebration of American values has remained unchanged. Today, millions of people gather for Independence Day festivities across the nation. While some of the nation’s most prominent events, such as parades and fireworks, take place in the nation’s capital, the majority of Americans celebrate the holiday in their hometowns.

The Evolution of Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors celebrated many days of thanksgiving—days of prayer for blessings such as military victory, the end of a drought or other natural events. But it took decades for the national government to proclaim a national Thanksgiving holiday, and even longer for its date to become fixed.

In the nineteenth century, Sarah Josepha Hale—editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and a strong advocate for promoting American nationalism—pushed for a federal holiday of remembrance and unity, modeled after European holidays like Boxing Day, a celebration of the dead, or Saint Lucia Day, a celebration of the Virgin Mary. The last Thursday of November was chosen for the holiday, which was proclaimed by President George Washington in October 1789 and promoted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

By the twentieth century, American Thanksgiving had evolved into a secular festival marked by family reunions, football games, and parades of costumed revelers. As the country became more urban, and families moved farther apart, Thanksgiving began to be a time for people of all backgrounds to celebrate with their own customs. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, featuring bands, floats and huge balloons, was first held in 1920, and the Detroit Lions have played every Thanksgiving since 1934.

Thanksgiving also has become a time to remember the origins of the holiday, and this story is reflected in its decorations, foodways, and themes of family-and national-reunion. During the Civil War, this story was used to avert attention from the brutality of American Indian resistance in the West and the rise of Jim Crow, racial hatred, and eugenics, as anthropologists Lisa Blee and Jean O’Brien point out in their book Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit.

Thanksgiving is unique among the nation’s holidays in that it is a national, bank, state, and private holiday. Most other national holidays mark a monarch’s birthday, a historic event or the anniversary of a nation’s independence. Thanksgiving marks a moment when Americans reflect on their roots—and on the difficult and complicated history that brought them to this place in time.

The Evolution of Independence Day

For many Americans, the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate the nation’s birthday with parades and fireworks. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the founding of our country and the freedoms we enjoy. However, the history of our national holiday isn’t as clear cut as it seems.

In the spring of 1775, representatives from the 13 American colonies voted to sever their ties with Britain and become a new country – America. The vote happened on 2 July, but it took the Continental Congress two days to finalize the Declaration of Independence and print it.

The Declaration of Independence was a bold statement of independence and a declaration of the founding principles of the United States of America. It claimed that “all men are created equal” and that all have certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It also referred to Native Americans as merciless savages and the King of England as a cruel and oppressive ruler.

As the United States became more diverse, the holiday of Independence Day grew into a patriotic tradition that many different groups sought to claim. Abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, temperance advocates, and opponents of immigration (nativists) all used the celebration as a way to promote their views.

Although the first Independence Day was marked by a 13-shot cannon salute and spontaneous jubilees, it wasn’t until the War of 1812 that Americans started to observe the event with the grand displays and ceremonies we know and love today. The Library of Congress has extensive materials about the early celebrations, including recollections from local newspapers and congressional information about the Declaration of Independence in our primary documents collection.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we should remember that our freedoms were won by the bravery of those who founded this great nation. They gave their lives for the independence that we now enjoy and that our current soldiers continue to protect. Let’s honor their memory by celebrating the traditions that they envisioned and cherished for more than 250 years.

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