Thanksgiving: The History

Thanksgiving Day traditionally kicks off the ‘holiday season’ in the United States. The day was set in stone by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and approved by Congress in 1941. FDR changed it from Abraham Lincoln’s designation as the last Thursday in November (because there are sometimes five Thursdays in the month).In fact, more people in the US celebrate Thanksgiving than they do Christmas. Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday in a country that officially separates church and state so this probably makes sense.

Thanksgiving Day can be traced back to the 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the religious refugees from England known popularly as the Pilgrims invited the local Native Americans to a harvest feast after a particularly successful growing season.

The previous year’s harvests had failed and in the winter of 1620, half of the pilgrims had starved to death.

Luckily for the rest, members of the local Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, beans and squash (the Three Sisters); catch fish, and collect seafood.

There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving, but it’s clear that turkey was not on the menu. The three-day feast included goose, lobster, cod and deer.

Why do Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day?

Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote a letter about that now-famous meal in 1621 which mentioned a turkey hunt before the dinner.

Another theory says the choice of turkey was inspired by Queen Elizabeth I who was eating dinner when she heard that Spanish ships had sunk on their way to attack England.

She was so thrilled with the news she ordered another goose be served. Some claim early US settlers roasted turkeys as they were inspired by her actions.

Others say that as wild turkeys are native to North America, they were a natural choice for early settlers.

Who set the date of Thanksgiving Day?

‘The National Thanksgiving Proclamation’ was the first formal proclamation of Thanksgiving in America. George Washington, the first president of the United States, made this proclamation on Oct 3, 1789.

Then in 1846, author Sarah Josepha Hale waged a one-woman campaign for Thanksgiving to be recognised as a truly national holiday.

In the US the day had previously been celebrated only in New England and was largely unknown in the American South. All the other states scheduled their own Thanksgiving holidays at different times, some as early as October and others as late as January.

Hale’s advocacy for the national holiday lasted 17 years and four presidencies before the letter she wrote to Lincoln was successful. In 1863 at the height of the Civil War he supported legislation which established a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.

Lincoln perhaps wanted the date to tie in with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on Nov 21, 1620. Although we now use the Gregorian calendar. In 1621 the date would have been Nov 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar.

So Hale finally got her wish. She is perhaps now better known, though, for writing the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.

One can celebrate Thanksgiving twice…

Canadians mark Turkey Day, too, in fact it was the first country to do so. Canada celebrates a separate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.

It was first celebrated by the arctic explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 – more than 40 years before the Pilgrim fathers arrived in the New World.

Annual Macy’s parade

Another Thanksgiving tradition is the Macy’s parade in New York City – an annual pageant of floats, cheerleaders, marching bands and gigantic balloons.

When is Thanksgiving Day 2017?

In 2017, Thanksgiving will be held on Thursday, Nov 23.