Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate with friends and family, and to eat until we are so stuffed that getting out of a chair seems like an unachievable task. While eating that extra piece of pumpkin pie may be common during today’s celebration, this traditional holiday started out a whole lot differently, and it took centuries before it actually became a nationally celebrated day of thanks.
Brief History of Thanksgiving
A group of religious separatists left Plymouth, England, in September 1620 on the small ship Mayflower, seeking a place where they could practice their faith freely. It took 66 days to arrive near the tip of Cape Cod and then another month to reach the Massachusetts Bay, where they finally began establishing a village.
The first winter was so brutal, most of the colonists (also called the Pilgrims) stayed aboard ship, suffering from diseases and exposure. Only half of the original passengers lived through the winter. When the group went ashore in March, they were met by an Abenaki Indian who surprisingly greeted them in English. When he came back a few days later, he brought a man named Squanto with him. Squanto was from the Patuxet tribe, who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English sea captain. He had escaped and returned to his home.
Squanto taught the tired and malnourished Pilgrims how to grow corn, obtain sap from maple trees, and catch fish. He also introduced them to the Wampanoag, the local tribe that would share the momentous Thanksgiving dinner with the Pilgrims. This famous meal took place in November 1621, after the colonists’ first corn harvest was a success.
The dinner didn’t consist of the traditional dishes we associate with the holiday today. Many of the foods were prepared using Native American cooking methods and spices. The Pilgrims did not have an oven for baking and their sugar supply had drastically dwindled, so they did not get the tasty treats of pies or cakes.
The first push for a national holiday came in 1789, just after the American Revolution, when George Washington issued a proclamation calling upon Americans to express their gratitude for the conclusion of the war and their success at gaining independence from Britain. Presidents John Adams and James Madison also designated days to give thanks during their presidencies.
In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday and other states followed, although they each celebrated on different days.
Sarah Josepha Hale is a famous author noted for the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She was so adamant about establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving that in 1827 she launched a campaign for it. She is known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving” because of her dedication to the cause, and the time she spent publishing editorials and sending letters to governors, senators, and presidents to try and get it recognized. After 36 years of doing this, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, acknowledged the attempts. During the Civil War, he issued a proclamation asking Americans to turn to God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Lincoln scheduled the national Thanksgiving holiday for the final Thursday in November.
However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to change the date to the third Thursday, attempting to increase retail sales during the Great Depression. People were not happy about the change, calling it “Franksgiving,” and just two years later, Roosevelt returned the holiday to the fourth Thursday.
- Lobster, seal, and swans were on the Pilgrims’ menu.
- Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous such event, attracting some 2-3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route.
- From about the mid-20th century, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement.