Thanksgiving will be celebrated in the United States in less than two weeks. We all know the popular story taught in school that the Pilgrims came to Plymouth in the 1600’s. Only half of the population survived the first difficult winter. We are taught that the Indians helped the Pilgrims plant and harvest a bountiful supply of food the next Autumn so they held a great feast to celebrate.
But what is the history of the Thanksgiving celebration. In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at
Plymouth, Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. The grateful Pilgrims declared a three-day feast, starting on December 13, 1621, to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends. In place of turkey and stuffing, they probably feasted on roasted duck, venison, squash, seafood, and a porridge made from corn.
While this was not the first Thanksgiving in America (thanksgiving services were held in Virginia as early as 1607), it was America’s first Thanksgiving Festival. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England.
In later years, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned a thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God”.
Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states. Because of the ongoing Civil War and the Confederate States of America’s refusal to recognize Lincoln’s authority, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. That has remained the official day of Thanksgiving in the United States for the past 72 years.