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Thanksgiving 2023: how long has it been celebrated? What’s its origin and meaning?

The iconic image that Thanksgiving conjures up is of the famous 1621 feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans, but there’s more to the story.

The origin of Thanksgiving

Every year millions trek across the country to visit friends and family to celebrate a holiday unique to America. Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays in the United States where people sit down to a meal and give thanks for what they have.

The iconic image that the holiday conjures is that of the famous 1621 feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While that is the symbolic start of the tradition, it wouldn’t become an official holiday until over two centuries later.

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

The origins of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has its roots in older traditions from Europe of celebrations for the end of conflict, arriving safely to a destination, and a good harvest. 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.

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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.

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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 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 as religious a day as it was in the past. Thanksgiving today is the start of the Christmas shopping season, at least it used to be although the start seems to be creeping up ever earlier. 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.