History and Origins of Thanksgiving Day

How Thanksgiving Day Came to Be Celebrated

George Washington's original 1789 proclamation establishing the first Thanksgiving Day
George Washington's original 1789 proclamation establishing the first Thanksgiving Day is seen on display at Christie's New York October 3, 2013. TIMOTHY CLARY / Getty Images

Almost every culture in the world has celebrations of thanks for a plentiful harvest. The legend of the American Thanksgiving holiday is said to have been based on a feast of thanksgiving in the early days of the American colonies almost four hundred years ago. The tale as it is told in grade schools is a legend, a mythologized version that downplays some of the bleaker history of how Thanksgiving became an American national holiday.

The Legend of the First Thanksgiving

In 1620, the legend goes, a boat filled with more than one hundred people sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the New World. This religious group had begun to question the beliefs of the Church of England and they wanted to separate from it. The Pilgrims settled in what is now the state of Massachusetts. Their first winter in the New World was difficult. They had arrived too late to grow many crops, and without fresh food, half the colony died from disease. The following spring, the Wampanoag Iroquois Indians taught them how to grow corn (maize), a new food for the colonists. They showed them other crops to grow in the unfamiliar soil and how to hunt and fish.

In the autumn of 1621, bountiful crops of corn, barley, beans, and pumpkins were harvested. The colonists had much to be thankful for, so a feast was planned. They invited the local Iroquois chief and 90 members of his tribe.

The Native Americans brought deer to roast with the turkeys and other wild game offered by the colonists. The colonists learned how to cook cranberries and different kinds of corn and squash dishes from the Indians. In following years, many of the original colonists celebrated the autumn harvest with a feast of thanks.

A Harsher Reality

However, in fact, the Pilgrims weren't the first immigrants to celebrate a day of thanksgiving—that probably belongs to the Popham colony of Maine, who celebrated the day of their arrival in 1607. And the Pilgrims didn't celebrate every year afterward. They did celebrate the arrival of supplies and friends from Europe in 1630; and in 1637 and 1676, the Pilgrims celebrated the defeats of the Wampanoag neighbors. The celebration in 1676 was memorable because, at the end of the feast, the rangers sent to defeat the Wampanoag brought back the head of their leader Metacom, who was known by his adopted English name King Philip, on a pike, where it was kept on display in the colony for 20 years.

The holiday continued as a tradition in New England, however, celebrated not with a feast and family, but rather with rowdy drunken men who went door to door begging for treats. That's how many of the original American holidays were celebrated: Christmas, New Year's Eve and Day, Washington's birthday, the 4th of July. Historians believe that there are two connections between the festival held in Plymouth colony and what we celebrate today. Those are a collective and cleaned-up national memory, which arose in the 18th century after the Revolutionary War established a new nation; and in the mid-19th century when that nation came perilously close to breaking, an editor provided a weary Abraham Lincoln an idea to attempt to unify that nation.

A New Nation's Celebration

By the mid-18th century, the rowdy behavior had become a carnivalesque misrule that was closer to what we think of as Halloween or Mardi Gras today. An established mummer's parade made up of cross-dressing men, known as the Fantasticals, began by the 1780s: it was considered a more acceptable behavior than the drunken rowdiness. It could be said that these two institutions are still part of Thanksgiving Day celebrations: rowdy men (Thanksgiving Day football games, established in 1876), and elaborate mummer parades (Macy's Parade, established in 1924).

After the United States became an independent country, Congress recommended one yearly day of thanksgiving for the whole nation to celebrate. In 1789, George Washington suggested the date November 26 as Thanksgiving Day. Later presidents were not so supportive: for example, Thomas Jefferson thought that for the government to proclaim a quasi-religious holiday was a violation of the separation of church and state. Before Lincoln, only two other presidents proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day: John Adams and James Madison.

Inventing Thanksgiving

In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's magazine, published the first of many editorials encouraging the celebration of the "Great American Festival." She hoped it would be a unifying holiday that would help avert a civil war. In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked all Americans to set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved... The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies... No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Highest God...
It has seemed to me fit and proper that these gifts should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and a Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. (Abraham Lincoln, October 3,1863)

Symbols of Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving Day of Hale and Lincoln was a domestic event, a day of family homecoming, a mythical and nostalgic idea of the hospitality, civility and happiness of the American family. The purpose of the festival was no longer a communal celebration, but rather a domestic event, carving out a sense of national identity and welcoming home family members. Homey domestic symbols traditionally served at Thanksgiving festivals include:

  • Turkey, corn (or maize), pumpkins and cranberry sauce are symbols which represent the first Thanksgiving. These symbols are frequently seen on holiday decorations and greeting cards.
  • The use of corn meant the survival of the colonies. "Indian corn" as a table or door decoration represents the harvest and the fall season.
  • Sweet-sour cranberry sauce, or cranberry jelly, was on the first Thanksgiving table and is still served today. The cranberry is a small, sour berry. It grows in bogs, or muddy areas, in Massachusetts and other New England states.
  • The Native Americans used the fruit to treat infections. They used the juice to dye their rugs and blankets. They taught the colonists how to cook the berries with sweetener and water to make a sauce. The Indians called it "ibimi" which means "bitter berry." When the colonists saw it, they named it "crane-berry" because the flowers of the berry bent the stalk over, and it resembled the long-necked bird called a crane.
  • The berries are still grown in New England. Very few people know, however, that before the berries are put in bags to be sent to the rest of the country, each individual berry must bounce at least four inches high to make sure they are not too ripe!

Native Americans and Thanksgiving

In 1988, a Thanksgiving ceremony of a different kind took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. More than four thousand people gathered on Thanksgiving night. Among them were Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country and descendants of people whose ancestors had migrated to the New World.

The ceremony was a public acknowledgment of the Indians' role in the first Thanksgiving 350 years ago. Until recently most schoolchildren believed that the Pilgrims cooked the entire Thanksgiving feast, and offered it to the Indians. In fact, the feast was planned to thank the Indians for teaching them how to cook those foods. Without the Indians, the first settlers would not have survived: and, furthermore, the Pilgrims and the rest of European America have done their level best to eradicate what were our neighbors.

"We celebrate Thanksgiving along with the rest of America, maybe in different ways and for different reasons. Despite everything that's happened to us since we fed the Pilgrims, we still have our language, our culture, our distinct social system. Even in a nuclear age, we still have a tribal people." -Wilma Mankiller, Principal chief of the Cherokee nation.

Updated by Kris Bales

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