Thanksgiving History and Traditions

Celebrating Thanksgiving in America

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

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is filled with myths and legends. Many societies have a day set aside to give thanks for the blessings they enjoy and to celebrate the season's harvest. In the United States, Thanksgiving has been celebrated over a span of six centuries and has evolved into a time for families and friends to get together, eat (usually too much), and acknowledge what they are thankful for.

Here are a few lesser-known facts about this beloved holiday.

More Than One "First" Thanksgiving

While most Americans think of the Pilgrims as being the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in America, there are some claims that others in the New World should be recognized as first. For example, there is evidence that a feast was held in Texas in 1541 by Padre Fray Juan de Padilla for Coronado and his troops. This date is 79 years earlier than the arrival of the Pilgrims to America. It is believed that this day of thanks and prayer occurred in the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas. 

The Plymouth Thanksgiving

The date of what is typically recognized as the first Thanksgiving is not precisely known, though it is generally believed to have occurred between September 21 and November 9, 1621. The Plymouth Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to dine with them and celebrate a plentiful harvest following a very difficult winter in which nearly half of the white settlers had died.

 The event lasted for three days, as described by Edward Winslow, one of the participating Pilgrims. According to Winslow, the feast consisted of corn, barley, fowl (including wild turkeys and waterfowl), and venison.

The Plymouth Thanksgiving feast was attended by 52 Pilgrims and approximately 50 to 90 Native Americans.

Attendees included John Alden, William Bradford, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish among the Pilgrims, as well as the Natives Massasoit and Squanto, who acted as the Pilgrim's translator. It was a secular event that was not repeated. Two years later, in 1623, a Calvinist Thanksgiving took place but did not involve sharing food with the Native Americans.

National Holidays

The first national celebration of Thanksgiving in America was declared in 1775 by the Continental Congress. This was to celebrate the win at Saratoga during the American Revolution. However, this was not an annual event. In 1863, two national days of Thanksgiving were declared: One celebrated the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg; the other began the Thanksgiving holiday that is commonly celebrated today. The author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Sarah Josepha Hale, was key in getting Thanksgiving officially recognized as a national holiday. She published a letter to President Lincoln in a popular women's magazine, advocating for a national holiday that would help unify the nation during the Civil War. 

Celebrating Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a tradition that continues to this day, as each year the President officially declares a day of National Thanksgiving.

The President also pardons a turkey each Thanksgiving, a tradition that began with President Harry Truman.