History of Thanksgiving

We should use our holidays to refresh our knowledge of history.

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.

Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.

Thanksgiving Becomes an Official Holiday

Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians. Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask 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.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Traditions

In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been on offer when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird—whether roasted, baked or deep-fried—on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.

Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.

Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, 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. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.

Thanksgiving Controversies

For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims’ celebration. In 1565, for instance, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival. On December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River, they read a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Some Native Americans and others take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially to schoolchildren. In their view, the traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar events are held in other parts of the country.

Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins

Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic. Both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.

As an annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty, moreover, Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents and millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Finally, historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.



51 thoughts on “History of Thanksgiving

  1. Take a moment this week to be thankful for current and past blessings. I heard someone just this week ask a friend to close her eyes and recall a memorable experience. For whatever reason, my memory recalled sitting on deck at 2 am in Alaska soaking in the wonder and beauty of the midnight sun.

    Aren’t we blessed to have memories where we can stow away these precious little moments?

  2. My moment that is most vivid is when I saw the two rainbows in Colorado, in the thunderstorm with the sunlight playing twinkling tricks all around us, and then we drove “through” one of them. It was the most surreal, breathtaking experience I have ever had.

    Here is what I posted yesterday, with the link now being copied and pasted. I am on my husband’s computer this morning. This link should work now. Read this article. It is unbelievable. It appears that the RNC, after being sued by the DNC in the 80’s, have agreed as a settlement, that the RNC will not contest any voter fraud in counties where there is a minority dominance. And every year the original judge, who is not in his 80s, comes out to reinforce the settlement. It happened this year in March, with a new young judge taking over. If this is true, I can not believe it.


  3. Good Morning, Villagers…rain clouds have taken a hike, some clouds, some sunshine, highs around 63 degrees!

    Taylor…thanks for the change of pace, getting away from politics and discovering Thanksgivings origins is a great idea. One thing about most holidays is their everchanging origin…it seems like the older I get the more variations of holidays keep cropping up. I was sorry to hear that some stores are going to start Black Friday on Thanksgiving…I don’t like that one bit…it’s one holiday that shouldn’t be more commercialized than it is already and people should be able to spend it with family!!

    Does anyone have a tried and true apple dessert recipe…along the lines of a crisp…I’ve been asked to make one????? It’s not something I usually make…anyone with a great recipe?

    Enjoy your day….

  4. Pingback: Thanksgiving « Technical English Remarks

  5. Well we pack today to head on out to Seattle, driving Lauren’s car to Heather. The weather has turned wintry, raining all the way. Lauren told her dad yesterday that she no longer needed to be watched over, she could be alone again. So, dad did not need to spend Sunday with her. She is making progress.

  6. Great thread to learn more about the history of a wonderful tradition. It has survived as an enduring legacy of why we celebrate, about family and those who made a difference in our lives.

  7. Good Morning, Villagers…rain expected eventually, otherwise it’s cloudy, cloudy, cloudy skies, highs in the low 60’s!

    Thanks for all the recipe input…my oven is unreliable(it doesn’t cook evenly), so I’ve talked my sister-in-law into a different dessert…that way I don’t have to worry about raw apples…besides, I like my apple crisp warm from the oven and that’s difficult to do at someone elses house at Thanksgiving.

    Go…I like your option, saves time and tastes good too!! LOL…

    Mary…travel safe…Happy Trails!

    Off to the grocery store…Enjoy your day…

  8. We’re having seven guests for Thanksgiving. Bob picked up a fresh turkey and with the new oven he’s putting extra care. He’s also now almost done with the butternut squash soup.

  9. Go, when my husband spent 6 months in Phoenix in the 70s, we were first introduced to Marie Calendar pies. Way before anything appeared in grocery stores. He use to carrry their strawberry rhubarb pies on the plane to me whever he flew to VA. We love MC and have several of their pies and pie crusts in the freezer. I use their pie crust when I make my homemade quiche.

    I saw pictures of the Romneys enjoying time with their grandkids at California’s Disneyworld. Good for them. They are not people that crumble at defeat but will build a stronger tomorrow.

    Thanks for sharing the NKC song Normita. Love his music. Good luck with the new oven.

    Mary, firswt there are baby steps then big girl steps. We wish her strength as she recovers. Have a great trip.

    We just returned from two nights at the Greenbrier in WV and feel totally relaxed. It was such a pretty drive.

    A big happy Thanksgiving to the village.

    Funny note: My husband planted several hundred bulbs of grape hyacinths, amenomes, daffodils, crocuses, etc, First Lucky dug up a few where he had fertilized them with bone meal. That was solved by watering the bone meal into the soil. Now he is doing battle with the squirrels who seem to find it fun to dig them up. He just went to the store for netting.

  10. Israel and Hamas agree to Gaza cease-fire
    “Standing next to Clinton, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, announced the breakthrough and said the deal was set to take effect at 9 p.m. local time. (2 p.m. EDT), capping days of intense efforts that drew the world’s top diplomats into the fray.

    The agreement will “improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel,” Clinton said at the news conference in Cairo.”

    This is a tiny step that although may not hold for long, it gives a little break for the people from both sides.

    • Yes, and two hours later Hamas broke the truce. They fired rockets on Israel. The Israelis have no stomach for a ground war right now. Bibi knows that.

      And today Morsi announced that no one In his country had the right to challenge any decisions he has made to- date. everything he has ordered is now the law of the and. Last month he said that Sharia will be the law of the land. this is what democracy looks like, the famous liberal cry during the Arab Spring.

  11. Hey villagers. Happy Thanksgiving. We are in Oregon today. Yesterday we traveled past beautiful, majestic Mount Shasta. With the rains we had the day before, she had on a fresh blanket of snow. Did you notice that I said she? Yes, the locals say it is a she. From one view she is a woman lying down, according Indian lore. Yesterday I could clearly see that. We had lunch at Lily’s Restaurant, a quaint pretty little restaurant featuring great home cooking. I had their homemade veggie soup, and their yeast bread. Great! The lady waiting on us was full of Mount Shasta stories. She told us she talks to her every morning. And so the Indian lore lives on.

    I hope all our villagers enjoy a peaceful, happy day today. Teri, I hope your table is full of laughter and happy talk. Those kids are now yours! The fight is over.

  12. Happy Thankgiving, My Dear Village Family,

    I Wanted to tell you all how thankful we are that we have these Kids and we are still in a fight but it will be alot easier for at least 8 months anyway, but from Mary Lips to Gods ears that the fight will be over!

    I Wish all of you blessed Thanksgiving and loving memories with your familes

    And everyone who is traveling be safe!

    I love all of you so much and Thankyou all again for the friendships and the Village!

    Teri and The Village Kids

    • Teri just enjoy what you have now. My step daughter who is pregnant is a worrier. Right now she is obsessing over baby furniture and the costs associated with a baby. I told her to quit worrying, have her husband ( who is a good carpenter) Make her one!

  13. Hi Teri, glad to see you here and delighted the village kids are still intact. Hope you all had a wonderful day.

    Lots of food and as always happens, leftovers abound. So everyone left with stuff.

    Bob and I are driving to LA tomorrow to attend the Cotillion Ball of the daughter of a friend of ours. Black tie affaire. Bob had to rent a tux and I had to scramble to get what I thought is an appropriate attire. We figure it’s a lifetime experience to witness such elegance for someone’s coming out to adulthood.

  14. Mary I thought of you when I read this article on Exceptionalism and Thanksgiving. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/21/giving-thanks-for-american-exceptionalism/

    I hope everyone had a great day and I’m glad Thanksgiving was early this year with an extra week in November before December greets us.

    Teri, enjoy the Christmas preparations with the kids and Normita, you will need to fill us in because I know no one who is or has been to a cotillion ball. Have a great time.

  15. Taylor, this one of the most poignant, right on the money pieces I have read. Thank you.

    Guys, I need some advise. I have never been pregnant, so I need help. My stepdaughter is experiencing severe nausea, what can she do? Help!

  16. Gingerale and soda crackers helped me but mine only lasted a month or so and disappeared completely one day. My sister and a friend really had it bad for months. How far along is she? Is all day or just certain times of the day? I also fell in love with yogurt and iced tea while I was pregnant.

    Just make sure she stays hydrated. Google and you will see other recommendations.

  17. Hello Everyone,

    We had a great Thanksgiving, and plenty of leftovers!
    I hope all you had a greatone as well!

    Mary, i can’t help with that one either since i’ve never had my own baby. But i guess God knew what he was doing with me looking down the road to see the great babies i’ve been blessed with!

    I hope your stepdaughter gets over that nausea, and has a beatiful healthy baby!

    Normita , you and Bob be careful and have a great time on your trip to LA.

    Taylor, I need to get your new address can you please sent it to me when you get time Thankyou!

    Karel,Go,CT,and MJ i hope all you had a great Thanksgiving with Famiy and friends!

    The Kids and I are going to put up our Tree and trimmings in the morning they are really looking forward to it!

    We love you all

    Teri and The Village Kids

  18. Good morning all. Got to Seattle. The Oregon coast is just breathtakingly beautiful. Got to see a herd of elk along the way. Had a wonderful dinner in a restaurant overlooking the ocean. I think my stepdaughter is having normal nausea symptoms. I am not as worried today as I was earlier.

    Isnt the chaos in Egypt predictable? They thought they got democracy, oh yea. The fools have learned, as will the Americans here, that dictators get control and they do not like to give it up. It takes a whole united nation to keep the democracy, and we must be ever vigilant. We have a constitution and we cannot allow any one in charge to violate that, it is what keeps us a democracy, the republic must stand. If anyone believes that the American reaction will be any different than what is happening in Cairo, then be warned. The mayor of Chicago is saying today that the Chicago way is the American way. Wrong, we have all just agreed to a peaceful transition, as is our tradition. The progressives violate that any further, and we will all pay the price.

  19. Sending a belated Happy Thanksgiving to you all. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Israel, Gaza and the Left Bank. I am receiving emails sent from women there within the areas being bombed and my teacher of mind/body medicine skills who is there helping the people with PTSD. Makes it very personal to me to hear their feedback and how they are coping with the pain of violence caused by government actions. Very courageous women an men who are risking their lives to help ease the pain and angst of war. One of the woman is Nitsan Gordon-Giles of Beyond Words.org; she runs groups btw israeili and Palestinian women to bridge the gulf btw them and their perceptions. I am always in awe of such people who act instead of complaining or griping. It gives me hope for the world.

  20. and one of the emails from Nitsan speaking to the women’s reactions:

    To all of you who have prayed, thought, cared and sent us your love…. all of you who have been like a lighthouse in the midst of the storm reminding us to breathe and remember our hearts… Thank you!!!

    On Wednesday a cease fire was signed and it feels like such a relief… I cannot begin to tell you..

    But now, just like in the aftermath Hurricane Sandy and every other war and trauma, when we are no longer in survival mode, the feelings begin to arise.

    Last night in the group, the Arab Palestinian and Jewish women were moving in pairs with their backs touching supporting one another, reconnecting. Then I asked them to take a step forward, away from each other, to place a hand on their heart and a hand on their belly and look inside to see what feelings come up from this last week and a half of fighting…. from over 60 years of living in a place of conflict..

    A woman began to cry : ” Today I saw a picture of some man from the Hamas dragging a corpse tied to a back of a motorcycle through the streets … I cannot bear it… what if it would have been my son???? … What if it would have been my son????”

    Another woman screamed: ” I don’t care about the governments let them all go to hell but those children, those children in Gaza, and the 12 members of one family destroyed by the rocket. It’s unbearable!!! I cannot stop thinking about them, I see them at night in my dreams…their bodies are like pieces of meat…”

    A mother spoke with tears running down her cheeks: “A week ago, my son who just completed his three year military duty in the IDF was summoned back into the military along with 75.000 others in order to prepare to enter Gaza. At first I was in denial. I did not want to even think about it. I ignored his summon and asked him to do the same.

    But then I realized that he needs to leave the country in January to go on a trip. He already bought his airplane ticket and I didn’t want the military to stop him at the airport. Despite my misgivings I advised him to go. Yet, when he decided to answer the summons I was still in denial. I helped him pack. It didn’t seem real…..

    And then after he left, I thought: if the government decides to send soldiers into Gaza I am going down there too, right to the border, and I will just stand there against the fence to stop him from going in there… I am not going to let my son go into Gaza…”

    A woman then cried: “Do you think the Palestinian children like throwing stones, do you think they would rather not pick up toys and play with them rather than stones??? All they want is what we want, to be able to live in peace, to be able to live in peace…”

    Another woman cried: “I don’t want to have to live anymore with rockets being fired at us for over 10 years and more and more rockets, tens of millions of dollars of rockets and missiles and bombs amassed by the Hamas in tunnels right at our border whose sole purpose is to destroy us. Its too much to have to live with such fear every day…”

    The women were in a circle now, holding each other, some were in the center screaming: “Let us live, just let us live, just let us live in peace…”

    This morning I woke up crying, thinking of all those voices. Its too much!!! I felt…I want to run away… I don’t want to have to deal with all this pain…

    And then I remembered Ann and Paula and all of you out there in the world who are also holding soooo much pain yourselves…I just want to say how much I need you… and how thankful I am that you are out there somewhere in the world…


    • Wow Tanya do you think that all of the mothers could unite and stop this? What I did not hear is any one of them saying that obliterating the other is not in their future, uniting to stop the hateful talk, killing all the infidels, etc. Now that would have an impact.

      • Mary,
        Why would they say or think those things? The Beyond Words group sessions are to foster peace and kinship through shared feelings. Who could or would be voicing those thoughts as they are in the midst of war; subjugated to male dominance and fighting for their own sanity right now. Nitsan’s non-profit is a step in uniting the women to have a dialogue as to their sameness.. They are where they are for now; I give then much credit to even meet together and try to dialogue. I only shared these to let you know there are woman everywhere that do not condone their governments actions no matter our religion or race or national allegiance. AND hopefully you will take time each day to send them prayers as they really need our prayerful support. And yes, I do think that if ALL the mothers united WE could stop the wars and violence around the globe.

  21. Tanya, thank you so much for sharing. These world events are not just words in a newspaper but the real pain reflected by the women in Nitsan’s group. I find conflict hard to understand but it is even harder for me when it is based on religion and race. The respect for life seems to be missing.

  22. Hope you all had a great weekend. Back from a weekend in So. California. The Cotillion Ball was a blast. Beautiful wardrobe worn by the debutante and her court. Amenities were everywhere, no sign of a fiscal cliff.

  23. Taylor no I had not heard about this wealth tax. I bet the people in favor of this now would not vote for it if the tables were turned. I just do not understand what all this hate is toward success and money.

    Tanya I was serious about these women talking about the hate that starts with their children when they are babies. The children are taught to walk and they are taught to hate. The mothers want peace but this conflict goes on for generation after generation, for centuries. Many mothers before these have watched their children be slaughtered. Who but these women that are now talking to one another to start the conversation? To end the conflict the root cause must be addressed. I think it is wonderful they are talking, sharing their pain. I would hope it would start a massive movement with all mothers involved. But to be more than it must end the hate.

  24. Good Morning, Villagers…lots of clouds, lots of rain, highs in the low to mid 60’s!

    I’ve been MIA because of an abscess…it started on Thanksgiving and by the time the holiday was over and the dentist in…it was really awful. Hopefully the meds will attack the problem…so far not much improvement.

    Take care Villagers….

  25. Do take care Karel. Dental and back pain is the worse. I think everyone should have a two day supply of pain meds just for emergencies.

    Until spending cuts are identified, I think the fiscal conservatives should stay firm.

  26. Karel oh so sorry about your toothache. They can be awful, I never realized until I had one. Are you still in pain?

    I agree Taylor, no cut in spending, no new TAXes, or revenue as they call it now. Isn’t that term just silly? Who are they fooling? Don’t these people have better things to do than think up synonyms for non PC words?

    I hope the Reps stay firm, but I am not counting on it. You an see them buckling already. And potus is out campaigning again. That is all he knows how to do. How sad this whole situation is. I say let the fiscal cliff happen, get it over with. We need to hit bottom to realize how stupid we are.

  27. Hey villagers. Anyone out there? We are home now. Had a great trip back. It was really storming as we crossed from Oregon to Califirnia.

    Not much news these days, just the same over and over again..

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