Friday, November 20, 2009

A History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day in the United States evokes a number of rich traditions, most notably the Thanksgiving Day feast. The food is, itself, a symbolic display with roots both in the New World’s early interaction between European settlers and indigenous people and in conventions that are more recent. In addition to the food, Thanksgiving calls to mind a range of traditions revolving around the family: parades, football, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, travel, and shopping, to name a few. In America, Thanksgiving’s modern uniqueness as a holiday lies in its somewhat less commercial identity between Halloween and Christmas.

The Thanksgiving Day holiday, however, is considered the official launch of the “Holiday Season,” as schools let out for a celebration that can be simultaneously deeply religious yet secular. To whomever thanks is given, Thanksgiving Day is a time designated for offering a word of thanks for the gifts of one’s life, no matter how troubling the times. Evolving from fast to feast, Thanksgiving Day’s origins are not clearly cut from the annals of American history.

The First Thanksgiving

The tradition of Thanksgiving in the United States is now four centuries in the making. The first Thanksgiving Day is considered by most to have been celebrated as a result of the first bountiful autumn harvest in the Plymouth Colony of modern-day Massachusetts. The Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic landed into a bleak November winter and saw half of their numbers perish during the course of the cold season, as food was in short supply after the long journey. Having had better luck through the subsequent summer, the grateful people “established a day of thanksgiving and invited the local Indians to share their bounty” (Appelbaum 1984).

In Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973), the familiar story is succinctly told by Linus Van Pelt in a Thanksgiving dinner blessing: “In the year 1621, the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving feast. They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought ninety of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food. Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish were honored guests. Elder William Brewster, who was a minister, said a prayer that went something like this: ‘We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.’”

While Brewster’s tidy benediction is apocryphal, it nevertheless captures the sentiment and religious spirit of the holiday. It is true that the pilgrims shared a celebratory harvest meal with the natives that included New World crops planted with the assistance of the interpreter Tisquantum (or Squanto, who also helped negotiate a peace treaty that lasted for 50 years). The traditions of that meal also remain embedded in the modern sense of Thanksgiving, but they are not the only ones that belong, and that day of harvest celebration was not a day of thanksgiving in the Puritan and Protestant Separatist sense—but it has been appropriated as one, the first one (Appelbaum 1984).

Governor Bradford was quick to call days of thanksgiving when they were warranted. In the first three years, the pious colonists used these “holy days of solemn prayer” to try to inspire divine grace for the struggling colony. The first proclamation came with the first autumnal harvest, and another followed a day of fasting and prayer that was called in a subsequent summer to try to supplant the devastating drought with life-bringing rain. Bradford called a day of Thanksgiving on that June 30, 1623, a day sometimes cited as the first Thanksgiving, given its appropriately reverent quality.

Other “first Thanksgivings” that occurred throughout the New World contribute to the tradition, though these days were usually not intended to be annual, let alone a day late in November. The Massachusetts Bay colonists similarly arrived too late to properly prepare for the winter. They, however, had the opportunity to send a ship back to England for supplies. When the ship was delayed, the colonists feared the worst. After many difficult months, Governor John Winthrop “convert[ed] grim necessity into an act of piety” by declaring a day of fasting and prayer for the already starving colonists (ibid). By chance, on that twenty-second day in February set aside for the fast, the ship returned and the day was changed to one of thanksgiving.

Elsewhere in the New World, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado offered a thanksgiving service on behalf of abundant supplies of food and water in western American territory as early as 1541, while French Huguenots in present-day Florida “sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God” in 1564. Days of thanksgiving were also offered in the early Maine settlement of the Plymouth Company charter, as well as in the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown early in the seventeenth century. But the most clearly articulated intent of early settlers to celebrate an annual Thanksgiving came at the Berkeley Hundred colony in Virginia where Captain John Woodleaf included in their charter a designation for the day their ships safely arrived to “be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.” Alas, that colony was devastated by an Indian attack and abandoned within three years of the charter (ibid).

The Old World Harvest

Thanksgiving as a harvest festival may be the most enduring tradition, not just because of its relevance to the struggling colonists in the New World, but because the celebration of a good harvest is a time-honored tradition around the world. In the ancient world, the Greeks honored Demeter, their harvest and fertility goddess, while Romans honored Ceres, their goddess of agriculture (especially cereal grains, which shows the etymology of the English word). Even the Old Testament is ripe with allusion to the harvest festivals, and ancient mythology is rich with tradition honoring the Earth Mother and her bountiful offerings (Linton and Linton 1949).

More recently, a primary example of a harvest festival from the Old World is Saint Martin’s Day, celebrated throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. In the Netherlands, the Sint Maarten feast on November 11 occurs during “the season when cattle are slaughtered, new wines are tasted, and geese are fat.” Mortensaften, or Saint Martin’s Eve in Denmark also celebrates the harvest with a family dinner, often including the traditional roast goose. Similar festivals, fairs, dinners, and parades of the harvest occur on this day throughout the continent in remembrance of the canonization of the benevolent fourth-century bishop Martin of Tours and, in some countries, the birth and baptism of Martin Luther (Spicer 1958).

While strictly religious tones characterize the early American days of thanksgiving (holidays all too often were connected to an unacceptably pagan past and the contemporary “popish” religion), long-standing harvest traditions on the continent translated to the New World where, as the colonial era gave way to American independence, a country began forging an identity simultaneously distinctive and rooted in its diverse past.

The Emergence of a National American Holiday

In the seventeenth century, a synthesis of developing New England traditions helped mold the modern sense of Thanksgiving. Along with the several proclamations of religious thanksgiving and prayer, civic thanksgiving, elements of Christmas, and the “Harvest Home” became integrated into Thanksgiving. The spirit of English Christmas and the tradition of gathering the last grains of harvest to take home crept back into the tradition of the season, and many colonies began adopting annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations over the course of America’s pre-Revolutionary history. But following the Revolution, the Continental Congress declared a day of thanksgiving in December 1777. It was “the first such celebration ever proclaimed by a national authority for all 13 states” and continued the custom of pausing for a day of thanksgiving in all aspects of American life, even as the country proceeded on its course of manifest destiny and the traditions of the original colonies traveled westward (Appelbaum 1984).

Various congressional representatives pushed the adoption of a legal holiday through the end of the eighteenth century, but debate broke out about the resolutions, from its legitimacy as a distinctively American holiday, to concerns over federalism, and finally the actual date. President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation on November 26, 1789, but it did not become a national holiday with the proclamation. During Thomas Jefferson’s administration, the holiday gained little ground, for Jefferson viewed national proclamations of the kind as too monarchical (Linton and Linton 1949). Jefferson stated that “Civil powers alone have been given to the President…and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents” (Appelbaum 1984).

Later presidents in the early nineteenth century issued further proclamations for days of national fast and thanksgiving, but while no national date was solidified, New Englanders continued to celebrate the highly anticipated autumnal day of Thanksgiving. Indeed, throughout the growing United States, Thanksgivings were held variously from September to January.

The final push to a unified national holiday came from Sarah Josepha Hale, who strongly advocated for a specific day like the Fourth of July to set aside for Thanksgiving. Her first treatise on the subject appeared in a chapter of her novel, Northwood; or Life North and South, which lauded the virtue of the New England manner of living over the decadence of the south. The success of her novel launched a career for Hale as a periodical editor, eventually landing the job for the widely circulated Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. Hale used the magazine as a platform to launch her campaign (on the heels of a similar declaration by the Governor of Pennsylvania) “to make the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving Day” (ibid).

Combining editorials with persistent letters to governors of every state, Hale’s campaign rose in the wake of religious fervor from the Second Great Awakening, especially as the Presbyterian Church (and manifest destiny) helped move Thanksgiving into new territories and states. Hale continued her campaign even as the United States was torn by Civil War, but the difference in northern and southern convictions prevented even the possibility of a unified national holiday for a few more years.

Still, days of thanksgiving were proclaimed on both sides of the battle such that by the time of the North’s victory, President Lincoln could effectively invoke unifying religious rhetoric in a national Thanksgiving Day proclamation on the third of October (ibid). “By having Lincoln as a midwife,” Elizabeth Pleck writes, “Thanksgiving… celebrated the blessings of American nationhood as well as its domestic ideals” (1999). But thanks to an almost thirty-year campaign, the determined Sarah Hale got her wish, and the last Thursday of November, 1863, became the first legal, national Thanksgiving Day (Crager 1986).

The Evolution of Diverse Traditions

The nineteenth century, however, was not devoted solely to determining the date of Thanksgiving. It also saw the emergence of many of America’s now deeply revered Thanksgiving Day traditions. While the Western turkey hunt may have largely fallen out of favor, the more secular feel of the holiday, from sporting events to parades, developed over the course of the century and into the early twentieth century.

New York City “Fantasticals” were groups of cross-dressing young men parading merrily about the streets—often drunk and outwardly ridiculing authority, all while masquerading door-to-door for alms or treats (the tradition, now tied to Halloween in the United States, is still practiced in some European countries in connection with the St. Martin’s Day harvest festival, while Thanksgiving has also emerged as a time for charity) (Pleck 1999). The Fantasticals have been variously suggested to have their origins in an American-transplanted Guy Fawkes Day observation or a “celebration of the final evacuation of British troops from New York” (Appelbaum 1984).

Though the Fantasticals disbanded in the 1910s, elements of that general merriment carried over, perhaps most directly into a bigger, more organized parade. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving became a “festival of the home,” a domestic occasion of the kind of which Sarah Hale would have been proud. On the one hand, from the Progressive Era through the 1920s, American education focused the holiday on the home and community. But as the old traditions moved into the home, so too did transforming aspects of technology and commercialization. So, on the other hand, the evolving traditions were not precisely as Hale had imagined (Pleck 1999).

The modern-day Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is known for its colossal balloons, astonishing floats, and marching bands. The first official parade was held in 1924, having been organized by a group of Macy’s employees who were mostly recent immigrants to the United States looking to re-create harvest festival celebrations of their home countries. In the first parade, “employees dressed as clowns, giants, cowboys and cowgirls, knights in armor, and sheiks.” The Central Park Zoo provided live animals and floats and bands became a part of the tradition that first year, and the parade has gone on to be held every year except for three years during World War II (Crager 1986). Yet the department store also had an eye on Christmas and, early on, the connection was made explicit when “Macy’s at first called its November spectacle a ‘Christmas parade.’” Commercialization had touched Thanksgiving—and ever since, the following day has kicked off a fervor of holiday-inspired shopping (Pleck 1999).

But it was the afternoon football game that most forcefully carved out its niche among Thanksgiving Day traditions. As Diana Appelbaum puts it, “The dinner hour, once set to coincide with the return of the faithful from morning church services, was now scheduled to avoid conflict with the football game” (1984). Football entered into the home in the 1920s with extensive radio broadcast, and for many families it became indispensable after-dinner ritual. Football games were televised by the 1950s, maintaining afternoon kickoffs so as not to conflict with the Macy’s parade (Pleck 1999).

As Thanksgiving began to incorporate elements of the harvest feast, some of the day’s more secular connotations began to emerge. When turkey, parades, football, and shopping came to rule the holiday, its religious aspect waned and “thanksgiving was rudely demoted to serve as the official opening day of the Christmas shopping season” (Appelbaum 1984). Thanksgiving may be the onset of the holiday season, but even with football and parades on the television, many families—those not participating in these events—have nevertheless gathered to pause and give thanks, if not for good football, for the time of having gathered together, for better of for worse.

With so many qualifiers, it is difficult to imagine a Thanksgiving feeling even remotely like the “old-fashioned” Puritan ideal. But the spirit of the holiday, like many holidays, is a flowing current of American tradition.

The Feast of Tradition

Ralph and Adelin Linton’s 1949 book, We Gather Together: The Story of Thanksgiving, epitomizes the traditional sentiment of Thanksgiving as “a gathering,” and one undertaken frequently by means of travel, whether near or far. Their first chapter invokes the familiar American holiday song in its title, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” (the next lyric: “To grandmother’s house we go”) to suggest the importance of family to the holiday. The Lintons suggest that “even more than Christmas, [it] is the holiday which brings scattered kindred together. The head of the family, or the member with the biggest house and the longest tablecloth, calls a gathering of the clan.” While the longest tablecloth may not be necessary, the gathering of family, whether physically or the mind, is an integral part of the tradition.

The dinner, meanwhile, may be “a national institution,” but the traditions that guide them are often as individual as the family, whose belief in the proper way to stuff a turkey, among other traditions, is passed down through the family lineage (Appelbaum 1984). Pumpkins, corn, and cranberries were certainly present at the earliest feast, though without molasses or flour, pumpkins were likely boiled and plain (later, indigenous people showed the colonists how to obtain maple syrup, which would have been a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving Day table). If they were lucky, wild honey could have sweetened the bitter native American cranberries prepare in a simple sauce to accompany the meat—which would have been venison hunted from the environs and mollusks gathered from the bay.

Later Thanksgiving dinners began to include smaller game, such as ducks, geese, or turkey, while New England cooks began to develop a variety of dishes based on pumpkin and the women began preparing various versions of cranberry sauce. These two traditions of the feast, the pumpkin and the cranberry,are the longest-running traditions of Thanksgiving—aside, of course, from the traditions inherent in the name of the holiday (ibid).

Thanksgiving is easily reducible to the sum of its parts: “the giving of thanks,” the unity of which the Online Etymology Dictionary dates to 1533. And whatever the range of traditions celebrated by individual families, Thanksgiving Day is as welcome a time today as was the bountiful harvest that first summer in Plymouth, or at any autumnal harvest celebration around the world. So give thanks and eat up, for winter is right around the corner.


Appelbaum, Diana Karter. 1984. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York, NY: Facts on File Publications.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, DVD. Directed by Bill Melendez and Phil Roman. Written by Charles Schulz. 1973, CBS Television. Paramount Home Video: 2000.

Crager, Meg. 1986. Macy’s Thanksgiving Book. Naomi Black ed. New York, NY: A Quarto Book.

Linton, Ralph and Adelin. 1949. We Gather Together: The Story of Thanksgiving. New York, NY: Henry Schuman.

Pleck, Elizabeth. “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” Journal of Social History. 32:4 (Summer 1999): 773-789.
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. 1958. Festivals of Western Europe. New York, NY: The H. W. Wilson Company.

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