The Origins of Thanksgiving

Myths and Realities of Thanksgiving

Harry Truman Receiving a Turkey for Thanksgiving
Harry Truman Receiving a Turkey for Thanksgiving. Harry S. Truman Library

In America today, Thanksgiving is generally seen as a time to get together with loved ones, eat a ridiculously large amount of food, watch some football, and of course give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. Many homes will be decorated with horns of plenty, dried corn, and other symbols of Thanksgiving. Schoolchildren across America will 'reenact' Thanksgiving by dressing as either pilgrims or Wampanoag Indians and sharing a meal of some sort.

All of this is wonderful for helping create a sense of family, national identity, and remembering to say thanks at least once a year. However, as with many other holidays and events in American History, many of these commonly believed traditions about the origins and celebration of this holiday are based more on myth than fact. Let's look at the truth behind our celebration of Thanksgiving.

Origins of Thanksgiving

The first interesting thing to point out is that the feast shared with the Wampanoag Indians and the first mention of Thanksgiving are really not the same event. During the first winter in 1621, 46 of the 102 pilgrims died. Thankfully, the following year resulted in a plentiful harvest. The pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast that would include 90 natives who helped the pilgrims survive during that first winter. One of the most celebrated of those natives was a Wampanoag who the settlers called Squanto.

He taught the pilgrims where to fish and hunt and where to plant New World crops like corn and squash. He also helped negotiate a treaty between the pilgrims and chief Massasoit.

This first feast included many fowl, though it is not certain that it included turkey, along with venison, corn, and pumpkin.

This was all prepared by the four women settlers and two teenage girls. This idea of holding a harvest feast was not something new to the pilgrims. Many cultures throughout history had held feasts and banquets honoring their individual deities or simply being thankful for the bounty. Many in England celebrated the British Harvest Home tradition.

The First Thanksgiving

The first actual mention of the word thanksgiving in early colonial history was not associated with the first feast described above. The first time this term was associated with a feast or celebration was in 1623. That year the pilgrims were living through a terrible drought that continued from May through July. The pilgrims decided to spend an entire day in July fasting and praying for rain. The next day, a light rain occurred. Further, additional settlers and supplies arrived from the Netherlands. At that point, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. However, this was by no means a yearly occurrence.

The next recorded day of Thanksgiving occurred in 1631 when a ship full of supplies that was feared to be lost at sea actually pulled into Boston Harbor. Governor Bradford again ordered a day of Thanksgiving and prayer.

Was the Pilgrim Thanksgiving the First?

While most Americans think of the Pilgrims as celebrating the first Thanksgiving in America, there are some claims that others in the New World should be recognized as first. For example, in Texas there is a marker that says, "Feast of the First Thanksgiving – 1541." Further, other states and territories had their own traditions about their first thanksgiving. The truth is that many times when a group was delivered from drought or hardship, a day of prayer and thanksgiving might be proclaimed.

Beginning of the Yearly Tradition

During the mid-1600s, Thanksgiving, as we know it today, began to take shape. In Connecticut valley towns, incomplete records show proclamations of Thanksgiving for September 18, 1639, as well as 1644, and after 1649. Instead of just celebrating special harvests or events, these were set aside as an annual holiday.

One of the first recorded celebrations commemorating the 1621 feast in Plymouth Colony occurred in Connecticut in 1665.

Growing Thanksgiving Traditions

Over the next hundred years, each colony had different traditions and dates for celebrations. Some were not annual though Massachusetts and Connecticut both celebrated Thanksgiving annually on November 20 and Vermont and New Hampshire observed it on December 4. On December 18, 1775, the Continental Congress declared December 18 to be a national day of Thanksgiving for the win at Saratoga. Over the next nine years, they declared six more Thanksgivings with one Thursday set aside each fall as a day of prayer.

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation by a President of the United States on November 26, 1789. Interestingly, some of the future presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would not agree to resolutions for a national day of Thanksgiving because they felt it was not within their constitutional power. Over these years, Thanksgiving was still being celebrated in many states, but often on different dates. Most states, however, celebrated it sometime in November.

Sarah Josepha Hale and Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale is an important figure in gaining a national holiday for Thanksgiving. Hale wrote the novel Northwood; or Life North and South in 1827 which argued for the virtue of the North against the evil slave owners of the South. One of the chapters in her book discussed the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She became the editor of the Ladies' Magazine in Boston. This would eventually become the Lady's Book and Magazine, also known as Godey's Lady's Book, the most widely distributed magazine in the country during the 1840s and 50s. Beginning in 1846, Hale began her campaign to make the last Thursday in November a Thanksgiving national holiday. She wrote an editorial for the magazine about this each year and wrote letters to governors in every state and territory. On September 28, 1863 during the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln “as Editress(sic) of the 'Lady's Book' to have the day of annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." Then on October 3, 1863, Lincoln, in a proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward, proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday of November.

The New Deal Thanksgiving

After 1869, each year the president proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. However, there was some contention over the actual date. Each year individuals tried to change the date of the holiday for various reasons. Some wanted to combine it with Armistice Day, November 11 commemorating the day when the armistice was signed between the allies and Germany to end World War I. However, the real argument for a date change came about in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression. The National Dry Retail Goods Association asked President Franklin Roosevelt to move the date of Thanksgiving that year since it would fall on November 30. Since the traditional shopping season for Christmas then as now started with Thanksgiving, this would leave a short shopping season reducing possible sales for the retailers. Roosevelt refused. However, when Thanksgiving would again fall on November 30, 1939, Roosevelt then agreed. Even though Roosevelt's proclamation only set the actual date of Thanksgiving as the 23rd for the District of Columbia, this changed caused a furor. Many people felt that the president was messing with tradition for the sake of the economy. Each state decided for itself with 23 states choosing to celebrate on the New Deal date of November 23 and 23 staying with the traditional date. Texas and Colorado decided to celebrate Thanksgiving twice!

The confusion of the date for Thanksgiving continued through 1940 and 1941. Due to the confusion, Roosevelt announced that the traditional date of the last Thursday in November would return in 1942. However, many individuals wanted to insure that the date would not be changed again.

Therefore, a bill was introduced that Roosevelt signed into law on November 26, 1941 establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. This has been followed by every state in the union since 1956.