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The Fascinating Tale of Thanksgiving's Journey to Becoming a National Holiday

Discover the holiday's centuries-in-the-making history.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Signaling the end of fall and the coming of winter, Thanksgiving offers us a chance to spend time with family, express gratitude, and of course, devour the best seasonal dishes we can cook up. But the holiday has not always looked as it does now. 

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The history of Thanksgiving reveals a holiday that has evolved over the course of centuries. And while the story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts may be quite familiar, much of the holiday's unique history is often left untold. From the American Revolution, through the Civil War, to our modern times, Thanksgiving has followed a winding path to become the cultural phenomena it is today.

The First Thanksgiving

In 1621, the Pilgrims held a three-day feast in what would come to be known as the First Thanksgiving. Though many cultures dating back to ancient times have held days of thanksgiving, this occasion in 1621 became the basis for the American holiday. At the time, the Pilgrims celebrated their successful fall harvest and their survival following their first trying year in Plymouth. 

Their journey and arrival in Plymouth had been difficult. Only half of those who set sail on the Mayflower lived through the voyage and the first harsh winter. But through the Pilgrims’ first spring in Plymouth, they began to acclimate with the help of local Native Americans. These Native Americans were instrumental to the Pilgrims’ survival, teaching the newcomers how to grow and harvest crops, catch fish, and identify plants.

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  • A postcard depicting Plymouth in 1622. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1621, the governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, invited some of members of the local Wampanoag tribes to a feast that would inspire the Thanksgiving holiday. The original feast is said to have included around 50 settlers and 90 Native Americans, including Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag who called the area home. 

Those in attendance dined on the settlers' successful harvest, as well as deer, a range of fowl, seafood, and vegetables common to New England. Lasting for three days, the celebrations were full of lively games, races, and shooting in addition to the plentiful feast. In his account of the three-day affair, the Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote of the bounty, saying, “although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want."

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Though a similar celebration is said to have occurred two years later in 1623, when the Pilgrims again recognized their good fortune after persisting through a drought, thanksgiving celebrations were not annual occurrences. Instead, settlers continued to hold occasions of thanksgiving and prayer as they saw fit. Just the same, the Wampanoag, who had held celebrations of gratitude well before the Pilgrims arrival, continued with their own ceremonies. 

The Relationship Between Settlers and Native Americans

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  • A drawing depicting Metacom, or King Philip, meeting with settlers. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Commonly viewed as a coming together of people across cultures, the story of Thanksgiving often avoids the more troubling aspects of history. Prior to the Pilgrims' arrival in Plymouth, the Wampanoag had suffered immensely from diseases brought by earlier Europeans.

Given their diminished numbers, Massasoit and the Wampanoag agreed to a treaty with the Pilgrims. Though the treaty laid out the foundations for a peaceful coexistence, the agreement did not last. The relationship between the Wampanoags and the settlers turned tense and violent.

In 1675, the King Philip's War, sparked by growing settler intrusions, rising tensions, and the execution of three Native Americans thought to be responsible for murder, resulted in brutal consequences. Conflict broke out between the Wampanoags and settlers, drawing in other Native American tribes like the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett on the side of the Wampanoags and the Mohegan and Mohawk on the side of the settlers.

After more than a year of raids and battles, a settler killed the leader of the Wampanoag, Massaoit’s second son Metacom, known by his English name as King Philip. Metacom’s death brought the worst of the fighting to a close in what was the bloodiest war per capita in US history. After his death, Metacom’s head was shown on spike for more than 20 years in Plymouth colony, the site of the first thanksgiving 55 years prior. 

Despite the deteriorating relationship between the settlers and Wampanoags, and Native Americans more broadly, the idea of thanksgiving remained. Thanksgiving celebrations found their way into the newly formed United States.

Thanksgiving in the Early Days of the United States

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  • One of George Washington's proclamations for a day of thanksgiving. 

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Throughout the American Revolution and into the founding of the country, leaders called for days of thanksgiving. The Continental Congress marked at least one day of thanksgiving each year. Following the Revolutionary War in 1789, President George Washington called for a day of thanksgiving in the newly formed nation. He urged Americans to offer thanks for the country’s independence and its Constitution. John Adams and James Madison also recognized days of thanksgiving during their presidencies. In the early 1800s, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton called for Thanksgiving to become an annual holiday, with a handful of other states following suit. 

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However, Thanksgiving failed to gain traction everywhere. Some criticized Washington’s decision to hold a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” saying it violated the country’s separation of church and state. Later, others saw the holiday as an attempt to force Northern morals and traditions on the South, with Virginia Governor Henry Wise referring to Thanksgiving as a “theatrical national claptrap” in 1856. In the mid-1800s, president Zachary Taylor also showed opposition to a Thanksgiving holiday, preferring to leave the choice up to individual states.

The “Mother of Thanksgiving” Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

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  • Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

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Even as forces attempted to coalesce against the recognition of Thanksgiving, one woman, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, worked tirelessly to ensure Thanksgiving became a national holiday. A magazine writer and editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale gained a voice through the prominent magazine. Referred to by TIME in 1930 as “the most phenomenally successful of any magazine issued before the Civil War,” Godey’s Lady’s Book popularized cultural trends that are now commonplace, like wearing white wedding dresses and putting up Christmas trees.  

Beginning with her 1827 novel Northwood and through her editorial columns in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale began to push for a national Thanksgiving holiday. To raise excitement for the day, Hale wrote poems about thanksgiving, stories about families gathering, and recipes for fall dishes. Given the staying power of her poem “Mary had a Little Lamb”, one can hardly dismiss Hale’s unique talent with this kind of work.

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Hale continued to press the issue, writing letters to legislators, governors, and even presidents to lobby for their action. Writing a letter on September 28, 1863, Hale addressed Abraham Lincoln on the matter. Just five days later, on October 3, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be held the last Thursday of November. 

Even after Lincoln’s proclamation, Hale continued to push for a law in Congress to ensure the holiday, leading a quest that finally resulted in a Congressional resolution decades after her death.

Becoming a National Holiday

Divided in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln hoped a national Thanksgiving would offer the country a respite from conflict and a moment of unity. In his proclamation, he explained that “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, the American people should take some time for gratitude,” and asked Americans to call on God to “heal the wounds of the nation.” 

Following Lincoln’s precedent, the holiday continued to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. Then in 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from its customary final Thursday. With the country still struggling in the Great Depression, FDR shifted Thanksgiving forward on the calendar in the hopes of ushering in early Christmas shopping and boosting the economy. However, FDR received heavy pushback for the move, and just two years later, he signed a bill ensuring Thanksgiving would be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November in a culmination of Hale’s earlier efforts.

Since 1941, when it became a federal holiday, Thanksgiving has been celebrated on its designated day every year. 

Today’s Thanksgiving Traditions

Through the years, Thanksgiving has changed significantly. Today's festivities look drastically different than the first feasts between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. 

Dinners are now marked by dishes, like turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberries. Elaborate meals are capped off with deserts and pies. Few foods now thought of as Thanksgiving staples were served at the original feasts. 

The holiday has also evolved to include a variety of cultural traditions. Football games, parades, and shopping excursions have become closely tied to Thanksgiving. Classic NFL showdowns featuring the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, first found their roots in college games like the Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving day game, first played in 1876.

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The now famous Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with marching bands, floats, and of course massive cartoon character balloons dates back to 1924, when its first annual parade was held–though the balloons were not added until 1927. Macy’s iconic tradition began just after the department store Gimbels held a Thanksgiving day parade in 1920 in Philadelphia. Even earlier, in the late 1800s, people celebrated Thanksgiving by parading through the streets in costumes. 

Shopping, recognized by FDR in 1939 as so closely linked with the holiday, continues to be popular. Drawing consumers into stores and online with discounts and deals, many retailers capitalize on the enormous levels of spending that occur around Thanksgiving. The period around Thanksgiving not only boasts Black Friday, immediately following the holiday, but Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, stretching the sales and shopping into the following week.

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  • Ronald Reagan pardons a turkey. 

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Even political life has incorporated its own traditions into Thanksgiving. Each year, the president takes the time to pardon turkeys, saving them from slaughter. The annual pardoning of turkeys began in the mid-1900s, and is a practice many governors also partake in at the state level. 

While many of the festivities surrounding Thanksgiving differ from the original celebration in 1621, people still take the time to come together. Many gather with loved ones for the festivities, the food, and to give thanks. So much so, that Thanksgiving is often the most travelled time of the year.

Some also use the day as an opportunity to reflect and reexamine the holiday’s early origins, instead observing a National Day of Mourning. Viewing the day as a solemn occasion, people have gathered since 1970 on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth in recognition of all that Native Americans have endured. Honoring their struggles, persecution, and survival, many use the day to consider how European settlers and Americans have treated Native Americans throughout history and continue to oppress them today. 

By reflecting on the history of Thanksgiving, it becomes clear that there is much more to the day than meets the eye. 

Additional sources: History.com, History.com, Time.com, Smithsonianmag.com, Goodhousekeeping.com, Britannica.com, Mashpeewampanoagtribe-nsn.gov  

Featured photo of the painting “The First Thanksgiving 1621” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (It was painted between 1912-1915 and the accuracy of its depiction is debated.): Wikimedia Commons