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Thanksgiving: how long has it been celebrated? What’s its origin and meaning?

Thanksgiving is a cherished time of year for many Americans whose story goes beyond the famous 1621 feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans.

Thanksgiving: how long has it been celebrated? What’s its origin and meaning?
BettmanGetty Images

Thanksgiving is arguably the biggest holiday in the United States. It's focus is on gratitude and on giving thanks. This year, everyone is extra thankful to be able to celebrate the holiday together with their friends and families again. Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, meaning the majority of workers don't need to head to the office. The feast began in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but wasn't always a holiday. In fact, it wasn't traditionally even on Thursday's and turkey was certainly not the main dish.

Every year on the fourth Thursday of November Americans sit down to a meal with friends and family to give thanks for what they have. Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the US famously immortalized by the feast in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts but it wasn’t always a national holiday, nor was it always the fourth Thursday.

This year’s Thanksgiving will be a little bit different with a virtual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and virtual family meals for those who heed the CDC’s advice due to the covid-19 pandemic. But there is still much to be grateful for even in a year that has become synonymous with bad news.

The origins of Thanksgiving

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - the United States Library of Congress
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Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - the United States Library of Congress

Thanksgiving has its roots in older traditions of celebrations for the end of conflict, arriving safely to a destination, and a good harvest from throughout Europe. Such celebrations took place before the mythologized Thanksgiving of 1621 seen as the first Thanksgiving. The earliest one recorded between Native Americans and Europeans took place in modern day Florida back in 1565 between Spanish explorers and the local Timucua.

But the one we imagine and has become part of our folklore took place in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. On that occasion the Pilgrims who had set out for the New World a year earlier were celebrating having had a successful harvest after the hardships of their voyage and the first winter in their new home had decimated their numbers by half. Although the original idea had not been to invite the neighbors, when the Wampanoag showed up unexpectedly, they were invited to stay for the meal.

After that initial Thanksgiving the settlers in the new colonies celebrated harvest festivals when a drought had ended or there was a bountiful harvest. Thanksgiving feasts were also held after major victories in battle. The first “national” Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington after the Americans’ victory over the British at the battle of Saratoga, celebrated on 18 December, 1777.

A nation in turmoil needs to be brought together

For many years the Thanksgiving celebration was a regional affair with celebrations proclaimed by local or state governments and sometimes a presidential decree. The division between North and South pre-civil war was also present with regards to Thanksgiving with the concept relatively foreign in the South. At this time the US was expanding rapidly to the west and tension over whether or not the new lands would allow slavery were dividing the nation in two.

Sarah Josepha Hale by James Reid Lambdin circa 1831
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Sarah Josepha Hale by James Reid Lambdin circa 1831

In steps Sarah Josepha Hale, or the “Mother of Thanksgiving” who began a letter writing campaign in 1846 to government officials both at the state and national level to push for a national Thanksgiving holiday. For 17 years she sent letters until the US found itself in the grip of the Civil War and a president looking for a way to bring the nation together as one took up her cause. Abraham Lincoln in 1863 proclaimed that the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

The modern Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in modern times is not a religious day as it was in the past. Thanksgiving today is the start of the Christmas shopping season, at least it used to be. In 1939 during the Great Depression, Thanksgiving was set to fall on 30 November which would have left only 24 days until Christmas.

Then President Franklin D Roosevelt in an effort to stimulate the economy moved the holiday up a week to give people more time to shop. It did not go over well, with critics calling it “Franksgiving.” After some wrangling Congress set the date to always be the fourth Thursday of November in 1941.

Today we associate Thanksgiving with getting together with family, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and football. It is one of the few days we actually get to kick back and relax (if you’re not in the kitchen), eat too much turkey (and for weeks afterwards) and then fall asleep on the sofa watching football.


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