Famous for being a day for eating an abundance of turkey and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving Day is held on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a federal holiday, so most schools and businesses are closed. The day after Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, is also a holiday in more than 20 states, allowing people to benefit from a long weekend.
Pilgrims Reach the New World
Religious separatists left Plymouth, England, bound for the New World on the Mayflower ship in September 1620. They hoped to find prosperity, a new way of life and the opportunity to practice their faith in freedom, the majority having left the Church of England. Over 3 months later, they crossed Massachusetts Bay and worked at setting up a village at Plymouth. Their first winter in Plymouth was particularly difficult. Most of the settlers lived aboard the ship, and disease and scurvy abounded. Only half of them managed to survive the winter.
They moved ashore in March. An Indian from the Abenaki tribe greeted them in English. He later returned with a native Indian, a Pawtuxet named Squanto. He had been sold into slavery but had managed to escape to London and get back to his homeland. He taught the Pilgrims, as they came to be known about 100 years later, how to live off this new land. He showed them how to cultivate corn and helped them build bonds with the local Wampanoag tribe.
A Reason for Celebration
In November of 1621, the Pilgrims gathered their first harvest of corn. Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast with guests from the Wampanoag tribe. This harvest celebration lasted 3 days. The food likely included fowl, which the Pilgrims had caught, and deer that the Wampanoag had brought with them as a gift. Their feast menu could have included fish, as well as native fruit and vegetables, such as garlic, cranberries, walnuts, and chestnuts. However, they had no potatoes and they would not have had pumpkin pie, as they had no sugar or oven. There was a formal march, and both the Pilgrims and native Indians put on a show of their weaponry abilities. As well as feasting and military exercises, there were games.
This day of thanksgiving to God, combined with harvest celebrations, came to be celebrated annually in the New England area by the late 1600s, but on various days.
First Nationwide Holiday
George Washington, before his presidency, had often proclaimed days of thanks for victories during the Revolutionary War. Now, after the success of the Revolution, he desired his country to be governed by laws which were faithful to the Constitution. In recognition of this, in 1789, he issued a proclamation that Thursday 26, the last Thursday in November, should be Thanksgiving Day, marking the first national observance of the day. However, the holiday was observed on different days in each state. Subsequent presidents did not maintain the observance.
A Holiday Once Again
An Eager Advocate
Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women's magazine that was published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878. Her editorials reached the largest number of people of any periodical at that time. She embarked on a vigorous 17-year campaign to celebrate Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday, writing hundreds of letters to prominent members of society and officials. She expressed her aim in one of her articles: “Then in every quarter of the globe our nationality would be recognized . . . every American . . . would thrill his soul with the purest feelings of patriotism and the deepest emotions of thankfulness for his religious enjoyments.”
Success at Last
Despite opposition from several leaders, she was granted her desire when President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, designating “the last Thursday of November” as a day of Thanksgiving. His proclamation, printed in several newspapers, stated that “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, the American people should take some time for gratitude.”
In 1939, President Roosevelt changed the day from the last Thursday to the second-to-last Thursday in November. There were 5 Thursdays in November, and he thought this would allow for a longer Christmas shopping period, boosting the recovering economy. However, many did not like this change - some states observed it; others ignored it. Finally, on December 21, 1941, the President signed a resolution to declare the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving is a day when families gather together to celebrate, give thanks for what they are grateful for, and eat. The original Thanksgiving meal has evolved into the ubiquitous turkey and traditional sides such as mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, plus, of course, pumpkin pie.
It marks the opening of the Christmas season and shopping period. It is also a day for football and other sporting events, both amateur and professional. Some people, wanting to give back, see the time as an occasion to volunteer at soup kitchens, food banks, etc.
Parades take place, the most famous being the Macy’s Christmas Parade in New York, with millions attending and watching on television.
Some doubt whether Plymouth 1621 was actually the first Thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrims may have adopted the idea of harvest celebrations from Holland, to where they first fled. Other special harvest celebration days and Thank Days, for special occasions, took place in early American colonies. For example, in 1565, in St. Augustine, Florida, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé held a dinner and invited the local Timucua tribe. British settlers held a similar celebration in 1619 in the Virginia Colony. Native Americans had their own harvest celebrations in the fall. Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations can be found in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures.
Some Native Americans take exception to how the history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people is portrayed. It belies the fact that millions of people died because of the conflict between native tribes and European settlers. Since 1970, every Thanksgiving Day, protestors gather on the top of Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock (where the Pilgrims are said to have landed). They observe a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar observances are held around the country.