Thanksgiving – a short history of the origins and traditions


Thanksgiving Day is a time to be thankful for friends and family. It’s a time to reflect on everything that’s going well. Our health, wealth, and relationships make life easier and more fulfilling. And every year, as we try to enjoy the holiday, we also get negative Nancy’s telling us about the horrible beginnings of the first Thanksgiving. Let’s look at the history of Thanksgiving in a more positive light.

Plymouth Thanksgiving

Origins of Thanksgiving

The fall harvest season has been celebrated by humans worldwide, probably since farming became widespread over the millennia. Once the harvest came in and was bountiful, it meant food stability for the long, harsh winters. A celebration would have been in order before supermarkets existed, where you had food available year-round.

Modern-day celebrations are more of a tradition of the harvest season as we transition into the colder months. Thanksgiving in America today dates back to 1619, when 38 English settlers landed in modern-day Virginia. Once they arrived, they declared a celebration. Other popular origins are of the feast had between the Puritans and Wampanoag in 1621 and 1623 in Massachusetts. Religious leaders often called for days of fasting or feasting during this time based on current events. There were no set days. And they were usually multi-day events held after a war victory or after droughts ended.

This was the case up until around 1682, during the revolutionary period. Powers began shifting from the church to the states. Political leaders would call for harvest feasts based on events favorable to their cause.

Check out these Nursery Rhyme Origins

Modern celebrations

George Washington declared the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26th, 1789, as a day of thanks and public prayer. This was seen as a way of uniting the young country. But Thanksgiving was mainly left up to the states until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a federal holiday. Every president after that said it was a holiday year after year until 1942, when Franklin D. Roosevelt announced every 4th Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving.

There has been much debate over the first actual celebrations of Thanksgiving. Also, whether or not it should be a holiday or a religious celebration. Historic leaders in Massachusetts and Virginia both argue the first Thanksgiving was held in their area. This led John F. Kennedy to acknowledge both accounts in a proclamation on November 5th, 1963, stating:

Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God.”

Turkey or Ham?

turkey day

During harvest celebrations in England, the goose was the go-to meal. However, geese were more challenging to obtain in the new world. Wild turkeys and ducks were more abundant when the settlers first came to America. Once immigrants settled into the new world, turkey was always available on the farm. Pigs were always on the menu, so ham was a staple.

Odd History Fact: During the 1821 feast in Plymouth, the Wampanoag brought five deer, and the settlers supplied waterfowl. So there was likely no turkey at what many consider the first Thanksgiving.

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