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The History of the Thanksgiving Holiday

by Rob Ramsdale 11/9/04

History of the Thanksgiving Holiday


In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the native Wampanoag came together for a 3 day harvest feast in what most consider to be the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, but most likely in very early October.

Few people realize that the Pilgrims did not celebrate Thanksgiving the next year, or any year thereafter. Prior to the mid-1800s, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the 1621 harvest celebration, Pilgrims or Native People. Thanksgiving started as a traditional New England holiday that celebrated family and community. This tradition began in England and was brought by the Pilgrims to America. It descended from Puritan days of fasting and festive rejoicing. The governor of each colony or state declared a day of thanksgiving each autumn, to give thanks for general blessings. As New Englanders moved west in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they took their holiday with them. After the harvest, governors across the country proclaimed individual Thanksgivings, and families traveled back to their original homes for family reunions, church services and large meals.

For over 200 years, many Americans were celebrating some version of "Thanksgiving" after the fall harvest but there was no set holiday and it undoubtedly had a wide variety of meanings depending on the heritage and upbringing of each individual. The Pilgrims, Wampanoag and Thanksgiving were first linked together in 1841, when historian Alexander Young rediscovered Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration. The account was part of the text of a letter to a friend in England, later published in Mourt’s Relation (1622). Young isolated the description of the harvest celebration, and identified it as the precedent for the New England Thanksgiving. At this point, Young’s claim had little impact on the popular concept of Thanksgiving.

Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Magazine, began lobbying several Presidents for the instatement of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the United States on October 3, 1863 via proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The proclamation declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln issued a similar proclamation in 1864. U.S. presidents maintained the holiday on the last Thursday of November for 75 years (with the exception of Andrew Johnson designating the first Thursday in December as Thanksgiving Day 1865 and Ulysses Grant choosing the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day 1869). By 1916, Thanksgiving was being referred to in writings as Turkey Day due to the popularity of the bird at the traditional feast.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare the next-to-last Thursday of the month (November 23rd) to be Thanksgiving Day. This break with tradition was prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association. Since 1939 had five Thursdays in November, this would create a longer Christmas shopping season. While governors usually followed the president's lead with state proclamations for the same day, on this year, twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd, the "Democratic" Thanksgiving. Twenty-three states celebrated on November 30th, Lincoln's "Republican" Thanksgiving. Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays.

After two years of public outcry and confusion, Congress introduced the legislation to ensure that future presidential proclamations could not impact the scheduling of the holiday.. They established Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November. The legislation took effect in 1942. Their plan to designate the fourth Thursday of the month allowed Thanksgiving Day to fall on the last Thursday five out of seven years.

Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). But the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. The date of Thanksgiving was probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).


Thanksgiving, in contemporary terms, is an invented tradition. It doesn't originate in any one event but instead it is a compilation of the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England, and commemoration of the Pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts, but what we now call Thanksgiving.


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