History of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving; A day in which families host gatherings, eat enormous amounts of food, watch NFL Football, and mentally prepare for the stress that Black Friday brings. While this holiday is an event celebrated annually, how far in history does this day of thanks stem back? 


When a small ship called the Mayflower arrived from England to Massachusetts Bay in 1620, the passengers onboard struggled immensely to survive on the foreign land. Their salvation were the Native Americans who taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate the land, fish for food, and even taught them which plants to avoid consuming. It had taken almost a year for the Pilgrims to finally succeed in growing a bountiful harvest, which led to a grand celebratory feast amongst the Pilgrims and their Native American allies. Today, Americans generally believe this feast was the first Thanksgiving.

However, it was not until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale, the author who is best known for creating the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. For decades, she used her writing talents to grab the attention and support of the people and politicians. Abraham Lincoln, seeing that Thanksgiving would benefit the divided nation during the Civil War, finally declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday and implored Americans to ask God to “heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes.”

Why is Thanksgiving Always on Thursday?

According to the book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History by Diana Karter Appelbaum, it was mostly by chance that early Thanksgiving feasts occurred on a Thursday. Appelbaum shared in her novel that, for the 17th-century Bostonians, some days of the week were occupied for religious reasons. Thursday, however, was a day where ministers had afternoon sermons for those who weren’t busy; it might be due to this, Appelbaum claims, that Thanksgiving began to traditionally be held on a Thursday.

When Lincoln announced that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday, he declared it to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Nonetheless, why is it that today we specifically celebrate this holiday on the fourth Thursday? In the year of 1939, November had 5 Thursdays. Because of this, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to push the holiday back to the fourth Thursday instead. He did so because he believed that it would be beneficial for retailers as people would have more time for holiday shopping. However, Roosevelt came to regret this decision as it not only caused public discontent, but there was no huge benefit from the additional time for Christmas shopping. It wasn’t until 1941 where congress passed a law that officially declared Thanksgiving to take place on the fourth Thursday of November. 

How has the Feast Changed Over the Years?

Naturally, the first Thanksgiving meal shared between the Native Americans and Pilgrims was much different compared to the feast Americans have in the 21st century. According to Tennessee Tech University, the first Thanksgiving consisted of deer, wildfowl, cod, bass, cornbread, and porridge. Some of the staples of a modern Thanksgiving feast weren’t actually on the menu until decades and even centuries later. For example, it was not until the 19th century that turkey became a popular dish to serve on Thanksgiving. Even pumpkin pie, according to The History Channel, only became added to the Thanksgiving menu by the early 18th century. 

Has the Meaning of Thanksgiving Remained the Same?

In the past, the main idea of Thanksgiving was to give thanks to God for what you have. Today, Thanksgiving has lost some of its religious meaning as the holiday is now more centered around gathering with family and general gratitude. Not only that, in reflection of what we have to be thankful for, the holiday has also come to include acts of giving back to our communities. To find out how you can give back to your community, please read our blog titled 10 Ways to Give Back to Your Community During the Holidays!




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