Thanksgiving: translating the name, tracing the meaning(s)

Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting, Freedom From Want, used an idealized scene of a family Thanksgiving meal to illustrate one of the “Four Freedoms” enunciated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the values for which the country was at war.


The fourth Thursday in November is here, and with it a holiday largely peculiar to the United States, yet at the same time universal in its origins as a harvest celebration. Thanksgiving Day, or, in Spanish, Día de Acción de Gracias.

As an annual celebration, it can be traced back continuously not to the early 17th century and the first encounters between English colonists and Massachusetts natives, but rather to 1863, in the midst of the US Civil War. Before then, various presidents had declared a Day of Thanksgiving in certain years, but it was not an annual ritual. In fact, the third president, Thomas Jefferson, had declined entirely to do so, believing it a violation of the separation of church and state for the chief executive to urge prayer on the citizenry.

To many ears, Día de Acción de Gracias has the ring of merely an awkward, too-literal translation of the English name. Other versions can be found in the Spanish-speaking world: Día de las Gracias (Day of Thanks), Día de Gracias (Day of Thanks, more briefly expressed), and even the tongue-in-cheek Día del Pavo (Turkey Day).

In fact, acción de graciasis the Spanish term (as is “thanksgiving” in English), in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, for a special Mass or service, as well as a prayer of thanks to God.  In other words, long before the invention of this holiday in the United States, a theological and liturgical concept existed, along with a personal religious practice, of that name.

“A Soldier’s Thanksgiving” was the Saturday Evening Post’s cover for Dec. 8, 1917, the US’s first year of direct involvement in the ‘Great War’. J.C. Leyendecker was the artist. The military connection with Thanksgiving is one of the holiday’s many facets.

In English, the phrase to say grace (as before a meal) used to be in the plural: before Shakespeare’s time, one spoke of graces, whose meaning was simply the giving of thanks.  That older plural mirrors exactly the Spanish use, as it still exists: gracias.

In the English colonies, some years saw the authorities (whether civil or religious) declare a Day of Thanksgiving marked by prayers and feasting. In certain other years, in which bad harvests, plagues, or other misfortunes were understood to be signs of divine wrath at the community, leaders decreed days of penitence and fasting.

This mix of gratitude and humility was reflected in the later presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving, from the Civil War forward. Along with thanks to God, it was customary to express regret for national errors and a desire to mend our ways.  (An earlier proclamation, from George Washington in 1789, urged the people to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . “) Somehow, by the last quarter of the 20th century, it no longer occurred to US presidents to include such a note of remorse.

The Thanksgiving holiday has assumed the widest imaginable range of forms throughout its history, and from region to region. A few examples will serve to illustrate. In the South, the day was, historically, strongly linked to hunting by the menfolk, and later an association arose with football. In New York City until well after 1900, it was a Carnavalesque occasion with more than a hint of Halloween, in which groups of children and youths masked and costumed in the raiments of poverty or danger would wander the streets of the city demanding treats from residents and passers-by, under threat of playing tricks. This sort of urban mischief led to a movement to tame or soften the holiday, making of it a tribute to middle-class domesticity. And the symbolic inclusion of members of the armed forces posted overseas, especially in wartime, has been a feature of every Thanksgiving going back to the war with Spain in 1898.

Giant balloon of the Tin Man character from The Wizard of Oz (a novelty, as the movie had premiered just the year before), Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City, 1940. Commercialism has been a feature of Thanksgiving for at least a century.

In addition to its diverse forms of celebration, the holiday has always generated the most varied interpretations and meanings. On the one hand, it elicits the affection of many people for its lack of commercialism, and for the absence of material gift-giving from its rituals: quite the contrary, its center is occupied by a meal shared with family, friends, and persons alone or in need. Nevertheless, for over a hundred years now, Thanksgiving (or at least the day immediately after) has been understood to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Leading department stores began sponsoring Thanksgiving Day parades in the early 20th century (Macy’s became the most famous, but wasn’t the first, an honor reserved for Gimbel’s parade which debuted in Philadelphia in 1920).

The holiday has also been widely seen as essentially religious in character: the thanks are given to God. Another perspective, though, is one of a more diffuse sort of gratitude, whether towards nature, one’s parents, or others. This debate is impossible to resolve: the remotest origins are doubtless religious, as Jefferson understood in opposing the idea of  a presidential proclamation. At the same time, the ever-changing, protean nature of the holiday has made of it, just as clearly, a celebration that is to a great extent secular.

Another contradiction relates to Native Americans or, as most of them prefer to call themselves, American Indians. On the hand, we note a widespread belief that Thanksgiving Day is, at least in part, an occasion of gratitude towards the native inhabitants who helped the earliest colonists survive the harsh winter in a land of whose agriculture they were utterly ignorant. On the other hand, there are those who see the holiday as an affirmation of the conquest of the American Indian and even a ritual sacrifice in which the turkey symbolizes the original human inhabitants.

The modern origin of Thanksgiving Day during the Civil War, and by the hand of President Lincoln, offers a clue for understanding another peculiarity of the holiday: its rejection, into the early decades of the 20th century, by much of the South as a Yankee imposition. Even earlier, abolitionists had used Thanskgiving as an occasion for sermons against slavery.  These antecedents together helped solidify a long-standing Southern White disdain for the holiday, in the past.

Another vital connotation of Thanksgiving Day is that of homecoming. For a people as mobile as that of the United States, the holiday had by the middle of the 19th century become the occasion for the reencounter of the country’s scattered sons and daughters with the homes of their childhood and with now aged parents.  Currier & Ives’s famous lithograph of 1867, Home to Thanksgiving, made this association visually memorable. The homecoming theme, more broadly, is presented with both comedy and pathos in the 1987 feature film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, viewing of which has become a staple of the holiday in many homes.

Currier and Ives’s famous lithograph from 1867, crystallizes in its snowy, rural scene a notion deeply rooted in the culture of the United States: Thanksgiving as an occasion for a restlessly mobile, scattered population to return to the family homestead.

The endless debates about the origins of Thanksgiving Day underscore its importance as a national festival.  Symbolically, it’s understood as a performance of the very beginnings of colonization, which it ritually reenacts. Massachusetts, Maine, Florida, and other states (then colonies) dispute over where “the first Thanksgiving” happened.  This search for a genesis is a chimera. For thanksgiving, with a small ‘t’, is a gesture whose origins are lost in the mists of time. One might as well search for the first embrace, or the first wedding.  Anyway, none of the various thanksgiving feasts that occurred in this or that colony can show an uninterrupted continuity up to the present national celebration.

Today, despite its diverse and sometimes contradictory facets, Thanksgiving Day remains an indispensable date on the country’s calendar. And, as the turkey tamales, turkey curry, turkey paella, and countless other variants bear witness on millions of family tables, the holiday has proven singularly supple in its ability to welcome and incorporate generation after generation of immigrants.

Here Disney combines the sentimental “thanks, Native Americans” approach to Thanksgiving with some good, old-fashioned cheesecake.

Sentimentally, but with much truth, it has been said that Thanksgiving Day is a kind of national communion. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine another day of the year devoted, for almost every one of the more than 300 million who live in the United States, to a single, shared activity. The elements of simplicity, homecoming, and unity-in-diversity that mark El Día de Acción de Gracias would seem to assure its continued relevance in national culture.Copyright ©2012 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.


Pablo Julián Davis is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, English>Spanish, and Certified by the Supreme Court as an Interpreter, English<>Spanish. He delivers world-class translation and interpreting, as well as inspiring and interactive cultural training, through his company Interfluency Translation+Culture. He can be reached at


About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

One Response to Thanksgiving: translating the name, tracing the meaning(s)

  1. Pingback: Acción de Gracias: frase y fiesta « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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