The History of Thanksgiving Day – Let’s Talk Turkey!

The very first Thanksgiving was a bit different than most of us think – a pilgrim would usually only wear his black and white outfit to church, and buckles weren’t yet in fashion. There were no forks at the party. In fact, there was only one fork in all of America at the time. Everyone ate with spoons, knives, and their hands. Worst of all, there were no ovens, and the pilgrims’ supply of sugar and flour had run out. This means there wasn’t even pumpkin pie! Here’s the history of Thanksgiving Day so you can see how we’ve come from our forefathers’ three-day celebration to Thanksgiving 2004.

Why did the first Thanksgiving of 1621 happen?

When the pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock at the end of 1620, there were rough times ahead. Mostly because of starvation, by the fall of 1621, 46 of the 102 people who came over on the Mayflower had died.

The harvest in 1621 was a great one, so the surviving pilgrims decided to celebrate along with almost 100 native Americans. These Wampanoag Indians had helped so much in the first year at Plymouth. They all came together for a three-day festival where they all stuffed themselves silly on food. We don’t know the exact date, but it happened sometime between September 21 and November 11. This is the origin of Thanksgiving.

The history of the Thanksgiving day turkey

We don’t really know that the pilgrims and Indians ate Thanksgiving turkey. We do know that the Indians brought deer for venison. So how did turkey become the staple of the holiday? It seems the pilgrims called all wild fowl “turkey.” Governor William Bradford sent men out to come back with fowl for the women to cook, and they did. Whether it was wild turkey, duck, goose, or even eagles, we don’t know. They called it turkey, and roasted the birds on spits to be eaten at the table.

While modern day Thanksgiving dinner centers on turkey, there were other meats available at the first celebration. Seafood was readily available, so there were clams, lobster, and other fish (maybe even seal!) to eat. Side dishes were pretty much limited to plums and grapes, boiled pumpkin, beans, peas, carrots, onions, and nuts. At this time, the settlers knew about potatoes, but they thought potatoes were poisonous.

Incidentally, tradition then was that all of the adults sat down to eat while the children and servants served the food. Remember that the next time you complain about sitting at the kids’ table!

A sporadic Thanksgiving day history follows

The settlers did not celebrate the next year. In 1623, however, there was a devastating drought. The pilgrims all gathered to pray for rain. Amazingly enough, it rained the very next day. Governor Bradford decided to make another day of giving thanks where they again invited their Indian friends.

It wasn’t until more than 50 years had passed when there was an official Thanksgiving proclamation in 1676. This new day was set on June 29 of every year to give thanks to God. The Indians were probably no longer invited as the proclamation refers to “War with the heathen natives of this land.”

In 1777, the 13 colonies came together for the first time to celebrate Thanksgiving. The point of this feast was to celebrate a victory over the British. The next year, there was no celebration.

George Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789, to be a national day of Thanksgiving in the USA. Not everyone was thrilled. Thomas Jefferson thought the idea to be silly. A lot of Americans believed that a national holiday based on one bad year for a few dozen pilgrims was a bit much.

Along came Sarah Josepha Hale. This woman was excited about Thanksgiving. You might even say she was obsessed. Hale was a novelist and editor of a woman’s magazine. Never heard of her? She’s the one who wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

Hale was so determined to make Thanksgiving a celebrated national holiday that for almost forty years, she wrote editorials in magazines, and she also wrote letters to every governor and president. In 1863, all of her efforts paid off when President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving.

So, which US President made Thanksgiving a national holiday? Technically, three presidents made official proclamations. Both Washington and Lincoln decided the day should be celebrated, but some businesses didn’t like the date. They wanted more time for Christmas shopping. Therefore, in 1939, 1940, and 1941, Franklin Roosevelt also made Thanksgiving proclamations. He made the holiday the third Thursday of November so there would be more time to shop for Christmas.

Roosevelt’s decision confused and angered a lot of people. Many Americans continued to celebrate on the last Thursday. Governors of some states even declared the original date to be official. In 1941, Roosevelt gave up the battle in order to please the people. A joint resolution was passed by the US congress that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

Modern day celebrations

Today, Thanksgiving is a day families gather to enjoy a meal together a bit different from the original feast. While we still stuff ourselves to the point of discomfort, there is a much larger and fancier assortment of food. There is often more than one course, white wine, and a number of desserts. After the meal, the men generally nap and watch football while women clear the table, wash dishes, and complain about the men napping and watching football.

We can be proud that Thanksgiving is also a day when a great many people reach out to help those less fortunate. It has become a tradition for many to spend part of the day at a food bank or shelter. There, they serve dinners to people who are hungry and homeless. Others prepare large meals and take them to the homes of people who cannot afford a turkey day feast.

While it is only one day a year and not the three-day festival it was in 1621, leftovers and shopping have become part of the celebration (and also the joke of just about every post-Thanksgiving monologue and cartoon). Businesses have Thanksgiving after day sales where shoppers turn out in record numbers to take advantage of good deals. Everyone enjoys leftover turkey sandwiches and pie while making Christmas plans.

The Presidential Pardoning of the Turkey

In 1947, the National Turkey Federation presented a turkey to President Harry Truman. Truman gave the turkey a presidential pardon from being eaten at Thanksgiving. There were photos taken of the president with the bird, and the turkey went off to live his retirement days in the country.

This tradition has continued throughout the years with successive presidents. It has become a way to kick off the holiday season. In April of every year, several newborn turkeys are chosen as the potential pardonees. The turkeys live a life much different than their not-so-lucky turkey pals. They live in an air-conditioned barn with nice, soft sawdust where they are fed only the best feed.

In August, when the Tom Turkeys have grown to around 25 pounds, 6 large and “handsome” turkeys move on to the next round. At this time, they are exposed to large crowds clapping and making noise, children, and people dressed to look like the president. They are taught not to bite the children, attack the president, or exhibit any other unseemly behavior.

Two turkeys are chosen from the six to actually make the trip to the White House. They are the presidential turkey and the vice-presidential turkey (just in case anything happens on the trip).

Sadly, this is basically just a photo opportunity for the birds. The turkeys do get to live out their lives in the country, but they usually don’t make it to the next turkey day. Because the turkeys are bred to be so large with giant turkey breasts, they generally die within the year. They are then buried at the 98-acre farm where they lived, which is called Frying Pan Park.

Our neighbors to the North – Canadian Thanksgiving

In Canada, Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday in October. That first Canadian feast was actually 40 years earlier than the Plymouth celebration. English explorer Martin Frobisher was trying to find that elusive northern passage to the Orient when he created his North American settlement. They, too, celebrated the autumn harvest with a festival that became Thanksgiving.

During the American revolution, many of the Americans loyal to England fled to Canada. They brought their holiday traditions with them. Therefore, Canadian and American turkey day celebrations are very similar.

Thanksgiving will remain a festive holiday for many years to come in the US. Americans love holidays and celebrate with food, flowers, family and Thanksgiving gifts. We are fortunate to have a number of things to be thankful for, and our patriotism ensures that we will always celebrate the sacrifices and good fortune of the people who settled our country.

About the Author

Shannon Schwartz is a freelance writer, director of a dog rescue group, and web research expert. Her articles focus on internet consumer protection with the goal of everyone saving money and buying online.

This article on the "History of Thanksgiving" reprinted with permission.

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