The Globalization of Thanksgiving Day

© 2018 Prof. Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers University

A cause for celebration: The 17th-century English settlers survived starvation and death thanks to the help of Native American “Indians,” who taught them how to plant native crops and where to hunt and fish.

Having just returned to the US in time for Thanksgiving with my family after teaching in Singapore, I cannot help but reflect on how this holiday has become globalized—or even “Americanized” in a way that offends many native peoples. And yet, some developments warm the heart—or at least offer reason for optimism.

Many years after the English immigrants on the east coast of North America celebrated their first Thanksgiving meal in the autumn of 1621, “Thanksgiving Day” was proclaimed a national observance on October 3 twice—on two occasions, almost 100 years apart, by two presidents: George Washington in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.[1] But it was not until 1941 when, spurred by merchants like Macy’s Department Store, it became a US national holiday under President Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 26, about two weeks before America’s entry into World War II.[2]

Pausing a moment on this treasured American holiday to take a more expansive and insightful view of its beginnings is a source of even deeper gratitude—and greater understanding of just what the settlers were celebrating at the first Thanksgiving.

“Saviors and Survivors”

The English immigrants fleeing religious persecution in their homeland were amateurs as settlers, many of them gentlemen or priests with no experience in farming. They had sailed from Europe too late to plant, arriving in November 1620 when winter had already set in. Only 53 out of the group of 102 survived into the following year, and even then most did not know how to grow native crops—their European grain seeds would not adapt to the harsher American climate, and most of their grain had already been eaten up. Nobody was there to help. All around them the settlers saw a seemingly unpopulated wilderness. Where were the people?

Patuxet Tribe Member Tisquantum (Squanto)

In the spring of 1621, as despair and death faced the remaining weakened English settlers, to their utter amazement a Native American of the local Patuxet tribe stepped into their settlement, speaking English (as well as the area’s Wampanoag language) and offering friendship and help. His name was Tisquantum, abbreviated to Squanto, who had been captured years earlier and taken to London as a slave.[3] Returning to his native place many years later, Squanto found no members of his tribe, the local Native Americans in the surrounding area having died because of European diseases introduced earlier. Instead, he found starving and half-dead English near his former village.

Sqaunto took pity on and befriended the English, advising them on what crops to plant and how to hunt and trap animals that summer of 1621. Squanto also served as an ambassador, or bridge, to the area’s Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, who lived farther away, so that a cooperative and friendly relationship developed. Like most farmers around the world after the labors of the harvest are done, the English settlers organized a feast sometime that autumn to celebrate their harvest—and their survival—inviting their “Indian” friends to join them. Thus, at the first Thanksgiving, 53 surviving English and 90 Native Americans shared a happy meal together.

Thanksgiving Feast Food

Gould’s Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana)

What did they eat? Certainly not the turkey the world knows today, which was originally a Mexican bird taken by the Spanish to Europe, bred and altered by genetic selection, and then returned to North America by the English. European farmers used to raise a guinea hen they thought originated in the country of Turkey. But the Mexican bird proved more productive, and European farmers, instead of raising the guinea hen, began to raise the Mexican bird instead, which somehow became known as a “turkey.” (Note that the native wild turkey of North America is quite different from the Mexican variety—and hard to eat.)[4]

The first Thanksgiving meal did not include today’s (Mexican-origin) turkey, but consisted of what was locally available—ducks, geese, fish, eels, clams, mussels, chestnuts, and black walnuts (not the Persian or European varieties of walnuts we eat today).[5] The modern factory turkey is so grossly distorted from being fed an artificial diet and being genetically modified in mass poultry farms that it is not even close to the original Mexican bird. Some are so modified that they can hardly stand, let alone fly. And factory turkeys are so bland as to be virtually tasteless (unless prepared by experienced cooks with loving hands). But marketing and social media hype means that frozen turkey meat from the US is exported and eaten in Singapore, Japan, and indeed all over the world.

Cookbook Author and “Sioux Chef” Sean Sherman

In a heartening tribute to Native American cuisine, Lakota cookbook author and restaurateur Sean Sherman, who wrote (with Beth Dooley) the wonderfully titled The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (Minneapolis: University of MN Press, 2017), won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. The Sioux Chef was also named one of the best cookbooks of 2017 by National Public Radio/NPR, The Village Voice, Smithsonian Magazine, and others.[6]

One reviewer said: “There are cookbooks from which one simply cooks the recipes, and cookbooks from which one learns how and why to cook. Chef Sherman’s book … is a cookbook meant to be studied, one where the recipes are not its most important feature, but rather a part of an overall call to reclaim the history and culture of indigenous peoples.”[7] Chef Sherman will be opening an indigenous cuisine restaurant in Minneapolis next year.[8] 

A Global Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is now a globalized holiday. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2017 the US exported 622,155,000 pounds of turkey to more than a hundred countries in the rest of the world (including 2,135,000 pounds to Singapore and even 747,000 pounds to Turkey!).[9]

Orchard Road, Singapore

Bright as the Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations are on Fifth Avenue in New York, or Oxford Street in London, they are vastly outdone by the illuminations on Orchard Road in Singapore and Wangfujing Dajie in Beijing and Huai Hai Lu in Shanghai, where the visitor squints in amazement. “Jingle Bells” is heard on loudspeakers starting in early November, when–mimicking Western countries—the shopping season begins. Singapore newspapers and social media display a frenzy of advertisements, including $200 (Singapore dollar) repasts in five-star hotels. 

Globalization has indeed spread cultural practices from one nation to another. Or at least, globalized holidays provide a good excuse for shopping and consumption that keep the rising middle classes around the world happy. But, dismaying as it may be to see the commercialization of a holiday based on humble gratitude, there is much more to the Thanksgiving story. Globalization and international trade also make the world more cooperative—because the economies of the world are now more intertwined. And the past 70 years of increased globalization have also been an unprecedented era of relative peace in the world.[10]

Thinking back on the 53 surviving English and 90 native Americans that shared the first Thanksgiving meal together, this event began a remarkable half-century of (uneasy) peace between the English and the Native Americans. With new annual arrivals, by 1624 the number of English grew to 180 and increased to more than 1,500 by 1650.[11]

But then group and ethnic nationalism reared its ugly head (as it threatens to do again today), and conflicts broke out as the immigrants encroached into native American territory to farm. Today, a mere 1.6 percent of the American population is considered “Native American”—and even that is a considerable exaggeration since most in the contiguous 48 states are of mixed heritage.

For those around the world celebrating Thanksgiving Day, in whatever manner they do so, it bears keeping in mind its true spirit of cooperation, forgiveness (remember Squanto, who despite being captured and taken as a slave to London helped the starving English settlers?), inter-ethnic harmony, globalized lifestyles, and—delightfully—a blending of cuisines.


[1] See: and and

Also see my recent post about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered earlier that same year, 1863:

[2] See: and

[3] See:

[4] See:

Also see my 2015 Thanksgiving blog post and the 2016 update: and

[5] See: and

[6] See: and

[7] See the Foreword Reviews starred review:

Also see Sean Sherman’s informative blog post:

[8] See:

[9] Download the Excel spreadsheet:

[10] True, there have been regional conflicts, including the Korean, Vietnam, Cambodian, and Iraq wars. But by any and all measures, the numbers of humans affected by conflicts (both on a per capita as well as an absolute-numbers basis) in the 1945–2018 period has been unprecedentedly low compared with all of history.

[11] See:

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