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Published on Nov 28, 2013 in Featured Articles, News, North America

The Origin of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays you just feel good about. It’s a holiday that conjures up images, at least for me, of turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and all the other trimmings that have long been banished from any healthy-living cook book. In fact, for many, Thanksgiving revolves around the Thanksgiving meal with the origin of the holiday largely forgotten. Therefore, I thought it’d be interesting to illustrate exactly how Thanksgiving came about.

During their first winter in America, the pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts lost 46 of the 102 of their group who came to this new land. Assisted by the native Indians, the remainder survived. One Indian in particular, Squanto, taught the pilgrims how to fish and hunt, as well as where to plant their crops, such as corn and squash. As a result, the following year produced a bountiful harvest. The grateful pilgrims decided to have a feast to celebrate their bounty and invited 90 Wampanoag Indians who, in addition to Squanto, helped the colonists survive their brutal first winter. This autumn harvest feast was held on December 13th, 1621.

The feast itself lasted three days and included fowl, venison, corn, and pumpkins, although it’s not known if a turkey was the guest of honor at those meals. This entire feast was prepared by four women settlers and two teenage girls. This is considered America’s first Thanksgiving Festival. The next recorded mention of the word thanksgiving didn’t occur until 1623 when the pilgrims, living in a terrible drought, spent an entire day fasting and praying for rain. The following day a light rain occurred and additional settlers and supplies arrived shortly thereafter from the Netherlands. Governor Bradford, the authority at that time, proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. Still, the word thanksgiving was not associated with an annual festival or specific day of thanks at that time. The next recorded day of Thanksgiving didn’t occur until eight years later when, in 1631, a ship full of supplies, feared lost at sea, pulled into Boston Harbor. Governor Bradford again called for a day of Thanksgiving and prayer.

For the next two hundred years there was still no national holiday celebrating a day of thanksgiving. Instead, colonies and states had their own date on which they would celebrate this autumn feast. Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, celebrated Thanksgiving on November 20th. Vermont and New Hampshire celebrated it on December 4th. In fact, it was common in America for any group which was delivered from hardship to have a day of prayer and thanksgiving. In Texas, for example, there’s a record of a day of thanksgiving dating back to 1541.

The first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration was initiated by George Washington on November 26, 1789 when he proclaimed this date “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” However, many states still continued to have their own thanksgiving celebration sometime in November.

It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that Thanksgiving Day was set as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. In a proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward, a nationwide day of Thanksgiving was set on the last Thursday in November. However, over time, there was a movement to combine Thanksgiving with Armistice Day, November 11th, a day commemorating the armistice between the allies and Germany to end World War I. Other groups had their own self-interests in mind in suggesting that the nationally recognized date for Thanksgiving be moved. The National Dry Retail Goods Association, for example, wanted to move Thanksgiving to increase the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Reeling from the fact that Thanksgiving in 1939 would fall on November 30th, thereby significantly shortening their Christmas season, which began the day after Thanksgiving, they petitioned President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving that year to November 23rd. The President complied for the District of Columbia, but could not mandate a change in date for states. Nonetheless, twenty-three states followed suit and accepted the 23rd as that year’s date for Thanksgiving, while the other 23 states elected to keep the fourth Thursday in November. Texas and Colorado apparently didn’t know which date to accept and, instead, decided to celebrate Thanksgiving twice that year! With confusion now reigning over which date Thanksgiving would be celebrated, President Roosevelt decided to legislate a fixed date and, in 1941, federal legislation set Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November.

 Alan Refkin

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