Thanksgiving History in the United States
Thanksgiving, also commonly known as “Turkey Day”, is a harvest time celebration. It started out as a deeply religious event, a time where God is thanked for plenty of harvest. Over the years this holiday has been somewhat secularized and is celebrated today in many places as a holiday for giving thanks for having such loving friends and family, and for all kinds of things in life.
The U.S. Thanksgiving History started with the Pilgrims. They were a group of English religious separatists who sailed to North America from Europe; searching for a home they could practice their style of religion freely. On September 6, 1620, they set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, bound to get to the “New World” (The Americas).
Popular belief has it that Plymouth Rock was the site of the original colony; this is known as false, when they arrived to Plymouth Rock, the natives greeted them with much hostility. They continued a bit further south and landed in Cape Cod where the natives were much friendlier. In this friendly area is where they decided to create their colony.
That same winter was very harsh; almost half of their original colonists were killed. In the Spring of 1621, Squanto (from the Patuxtet Trive) and Samoset (from the Wampanoag Tribe), helped the colonists out and taught them how to survive. They taught them how to catch certain fish, how to hunt, how to tap maple trees for sap, how to plant corn (maize), etc. Even though the peas, wheat and barley crops grew poorly; it was expected that the corn and pumpkin crop would be ample.
William Bradford, the Governor at the time, decided to arrange a harvest festival at the beginning of Autumn to give thanks and recognize the help the Indians had given. This harvest festival lasted 3 days. The food included turkeys, geese, ducks, venison, cod, bass, corn, barley, and corn bread. From what is known from popular Thanksgiving history, there were games, races and demonstrations of skills with bows, arrows, and muskets. It is assumed that the feast took place in late autumn.
This celebration came to be a one-time event (it wasn’t repeated a year later). It was however repeated again briefly in 1623 when there was a very severe drought. All of the Pilgrims gathered and prayed for rain. Luckily, it rained the very next day and Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving.
Only 53 years later, in 1676, was another celebration of Thanksgiving Day. The governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on June 29, to express their thanks for the good fortune their community had securely established. This chapter of Thanksgiving history was a bit different from the first two, as it didn’t include the Indians, and was meant partly to give recognition to the colonist’s and their victories. With all of the good intent that this would be an official event, it too was also a one-time celebration.
In October of 1777, the 13 colonies joined in another one-time celebration of thanksgiving. It was also to commemorate their patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga.
Around 1789 after the Revolutionary war, George Washington, president of the time, proclaimed ‘a day of thanks’. This still was not an official national day, but became popular with certain states, cities and towns, who started to pick it up as some particular day every year (around autumn time). There were also people going through many hardships who were against having a day for thanks. Later on, Thomas Jefferson was against and scoffed at the idea of a thanksgiving day.
By the time of the Civil War, this day of thanks had become a very popular event. Sarah Josepha Hale who was a magazine editor had written many editorials and letters to governors about the concept of the “day of thanks”. Her strong and obsessive efforts paid off, and around the end of 1863, President Lincoln, proclaimed a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father” – the last Thursday in November.
In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date a week later. He wanted to make a longer Christmas season for the retail industry (there were those who were against the break of tradition; this change was thought to give merchants more time to sell goods before Christmas, and as Roosevelt hoped would help bring the country out of the Depression).
The final chapter of this Thanksgiving history is that in 1941, Congress changed the holiday permanently to the 4th Thursday of November.
That sums up this recap of Thanksgiving history in the United States.