The history of Thanksgiving day in the United States is rooted in a combination of religious, cultural, and historical events. While the modern celebration is often associated with a feast between Native Americans and English Pilgrims in 1621, the story of Thanksgiving is more complex and has evolved over time.
Why it is celebrated
- Pilgrims and the Mayflower (1620): The traditional story begins with the Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists seeking religious freedom, who sailed on the Mayflower to the New World in 1620. They landed at Plymouth, in present-day Massachusetts, in December 1620.
- Harsh Winter and Native Assistance: The Pilgrims faced a harsh winter, and many of them perished due to lack of food and exposure. In the spring of 1621, the remaining Pilgrims were assisted by Squanto, a Native American who spoke English. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, catch fish, and utilize other local resources.
- The First Thanksgiving (1621): In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims and Native Americans, including the Wampanoag tribe, celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day feast. This event is often referred to as the “First Thanksgiving.” The exact menu of this feast is not well-documented, but it likely included venison, fowl, seafood, corn, and other local fare.
- Thanksgiving as a Tradition: While this harvest celebration was not an annual event, days of thanksgiving were declared by individual colonies or religious groups to express gratitude for various reasons. These events were not fixed to a specific date.
- National Thanksgiving Proclamations: During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress occasionally issued proclamations for days of thanksgiving. However, Thanksgiving wasn’t consistently celebrated nationwide until the 19th century.
- Sarah Josepha Hale’s Influence: Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and author, played a crucial role in advocating for a national Thanksgiving holiday. She wrote numerous editorials and letters to influential figures, including President Abraham Lincoln.
- Lincoln’s Proclamation (1863): In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. He declared the last Thursday in November as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.”
- FDR and Thanksgiving Date Change: In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday in November to extend the holiday shopping season during the Great Depression. However, this decision was met with resistance, and in 1941, Congress officially set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.
Key aspects of Thanksgiving Day in the United States include:
- Family Gatherings: Thanksgiving is often considered a time for families to come together. Many people travel long distances to be with their loved ones and celebrate the holiday.
- Feast: A traditional Thanksgiving meal typically includes a roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and various side dishes. Pumpkin pie is a popular dessert. The feast is a central element of the celebration and symbolizes the harvest meal shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in the early 17th century.
- Parades: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is one of the most famous Thanksgiving parades. It features giant helium balloons, floats, marching bands, and celebrity performances. Many other cities also host parades to mark the occasion.
- Football: Watching American football has become a Thanksgiving tradition for many families. The National Football League (NFL) usually schedules several games on Thanksgiving Day, and it’s common for people to enjoy the games together.
- Volunteering and Charity: Some individuals and families engage in charitable activities on Thanksgiving, such as volunteering at local shelters or participating in food drives to help those in need.
- Black Friday: The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Many retailers offer significant discounts, and shoppers often take advantage of sales to kick off their holiday shopping.
Today, Thanksgiving day is a time for families and friends to come together, express gratitude, and share a festive meal. The holiday has evolved over the centuries, blending historical events, cultural traditions, and religious practices into a national celebration.