The history of Thanksgiving



Thanksgiving is a time that families get together and many  volunteer to help the unfortunate.  How much do people know about the history of Thanksgiving beyond the fact that a meal was celebrated when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and shared dinner with Native American Indians?

The Mayflower landed with the Pilgrims, in what’s now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, in September, 1620. In honor of their first successful harvest, in November, 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a three-day celebration.  The governor invited a group, including their chief, from the Wampanoag tribe.

Today, we celebrate  with turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. A number of those items had not been introduced to New England. Although there is no official menu from that time, it is believed the meals consisted of venison, indian corn, barley, and possibly fresh cranberries. The Wampanoag Indians killed five deer for the feast, while the governor ordered the Pilgrim men to hunt fowl.

This celebration apparently was not a planned annual event, since it wasn’t celebrated again until 1623, but more often as an occasional event throughout the colonies. President George Washington announced the first Thanksgiving holiday for Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, but it didn’t become an annual celebration until the 1800’s.

Writer Sara Josepha Hale, known for her poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, was inspired by a diary that outlined a Pilgrim’s life. She wanted to recreate the very first Thanksgiving feast.  In 1827, Hale went on a campaign spending the next 36 years to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. During those years she wrote various recipes for turkey, cranberries, bread, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation would celebrate Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November.  In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving one week earlier to give depression era retailers more time to make money in the pre-Christmas holiday season. The change was not happily accepted by the American people.  In 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill changing it back to final Thursday in November. This date remains to this day.

According to, the religious significance of Thanksgiving has been lost, but it has become a time to spend time having a meal with family and friends. Parades have also become a part of Thanksgiving.  They were started by Macy’s Department Store in 1924.

thanksgiving turkey_ap images_100dpiThe Thanksgiving turkey tradition that occurs at the White House began in the 1870’s.  George H. W. Bush began pardoning a turkey from ending up on someone’s table. The turkey, or turkeys that are pardoned are sent to a retirement farm instead.

Although Thanksgiving is a time of celebration, there are controversies that persist. According to, there are some scholars that question whether the feast in 1621, was actually the first. Historical records indicate that there were European settlers in North America that had a celebration of thanks earlier than 1621. In 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé had a celebration with local natives to thank God for the safe arrival of his crew. Later, British settlers who reached the banks of Virginia’s James River read a proclamation declaring Dec. 4, 1619, as, “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

To this day, some Native American Indians take issue with the way Thanksgiving is portrayed to American children. They feel this depiction does not portray the bloody conflict that existed between the European settlers and Native American Indians,  citing deaths in the millions. Since 1970, Native Americans gather each year at Cole’s Hill on Thanksgiving and commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.”

The origin of a celebration of “thanks” may be traced back to ancient times in both European and Native American cultures. The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Native American Indians all paid tribute, according to their own customs, after the fall harvest. The fall harvest celebration also resembles the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Much of the information above was provided by the History Channel, found at

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