The History of the Thanksgiving Holiday in America.

By Aileen Marshall

The weather has turned pleasantly crisp recently. It turns our thoughts to sweaters, leaves turning colors, apples and pumpkins. Along that line comes the Thanksgiving holiday. Most Americans today think of it as a day to have a turkey dinner with family, along with pumpkin pie and watching the parade and football. We decorate with dried ears of Indian corn, various gourds and cornucopias. It wasn’t always that way. Various forms of the American holiday go back almost 400 years.

Central Park
Picture by Nan Peng

When the Pilgrims first came to this country in the 17th century, it was a new experience for them, trying to survive in a completely undeveloped environment. They didn’t know what or how to hunt or plant for food. The winters in the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, were a lot harsher then they had encountered in England or the Netherlands. During their first winter of 1620-21, 46 of 102 Pilgrims died. They encountered the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. They established communications with them and befriended one called Squanto. The Wampanoag showed them how to plant corn and squash and other vegetables, and how to hunt for wild game and fish. They were so grateful for a plentiful harvest in the fall of 1621, that they invited the tribe to celebrate with them. They feasted over three days. That first dinner included corn, cranberries and pumpkin, venison and fowl. The turkey is native to North America, but it is not known if the fowl included turkey. The act of thanksgiving was a part of their Puritan religious tradition, to celebrate what they saw as an act of divine providence. The Native Americans also had a tradition of celebrating the harvest. Edward Winslow wrote in a journal called Mourt’s Relation, a record of the Plymouth settlement, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

There are other claims of a first Thanksgiving. Virginia, Florida and Texas all have claims to an earlier event. But historians say that our current tradition came out of the Pilgrims celebration in 1621. The other claims were not known until the 20th century, and it was common practice in those days to hold a celebration in thanks for some fortuitous event.

From the time of the Pilgrims, until the Civil War, Thanksgiving was celebrated by different states and on different dates. Each state or colony would pass a declaration for its own celebration. At first it was considered a New England holiday. But it slowly migrated as the country grew. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared a national Thanksgiving for all thirteen colonies. This continued until 1784. In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation for a national Thanksgiving. Only Presidents Washington, Adams and Madison made Thanksgiving declarations. This tradition continued until 1815, after which, the individual states still declared a Thanksgiving holiday. By the 1850s, almost all states had an annual tradition of having a Thanksgiving holiday. Although it would be on different dates, it was mostly celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

In 1827, a women named Sarah Josepha Hale began a letter writing campaign to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. She was the editor of Godey’s Ladys Book magazine. She wrote letters to the editor every year, and to governors in every state. During the Civil War, she wrote to President Lincoln, saying that a national Thanksgiving would be a way to reunite the country. In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November. However, he did not make it an annual event, each state still had to declare its own Thanksgiving in subsequent years. Because some of the southern states refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, it wasn’t celebrated by all the states until the 1870s.

In 1933, the National Dry Goods Association asked President Franklin Roosevelt to change the date to the fourth Thursday of the month, in order to move up the start of the Christmas shopping season. At first he refused, then in 1939, Thanksgiving fell on November 30, so he did move it that year. He got a lot of criticism for putting business over tradition. Some states still held it on the last Thursday. In 1941, a joint resolution of Congress put the date as permanently on the fourth Thursday in November, and it’s been there ever since.

Other countries celebrate a holiday similar to Thanksgiving. Most cultures have had some kind of harvest festival going back to ancient times. Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada in late October. It is said that Thanksgiving was brought to Canada by loyalists who moved to Canada during the Revolutionary War. Before the Pilgrims came to this country, they lived in the Netherlands for a few years. Many of their births, marriages and deaths were recorded at Saint Peter’s Church in the city of Leiden. To remember the hospitality the Pilgrims received during their time in Leiden, a non-denominational ceremony is held in that church on the day of the American Thanksgiving. Germany has a Harvest Thanksgiving Festival going back to early Christianity. This holiday is more religious, but occurs around the same time as the beer festival, Octoberfest. Japan has an ancient harvest festival celebrating the labor that went into the harvest. Since World War II, Japan has had a national Labor Day Thanksgiving to give thanks for labor and production. The United Kingdom has a Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving. This pre-dates Christianity, when Saxons would offer ears of corn to their fertility gods. It is celebrated on the Sunday of the harvest moon nearest to the autumnal equinox. Churches and schools practice this with decorating and collecting food for the poor. However, because of media influence, a more American tradition is becoming more popular there. In 2014 it was reported that sales of turkeys went up by 95% during the holiday.

No matter what your tradition, it is always good practice to remember to be grateful for all that we have. The American Thanksgiving gives us a four-day weekend to feast, shop, watch football or just relax. Thank you readers for allowing me the opportunity to share this information with you.