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 good in life. Our health, wealth and relationships that make our 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, but in a more positive light.

Plymouth Thanksgiving

Origins of Thanksgiving

The fall harvest season has been a celebrated by humans the world over, 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 definitely 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 can be dated back to as far as 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. During this time, days of fasting or feasting were dictated by religious leaders based on current events. There was 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.

Modern celebrations

George Washington declared the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26th, 1789 as a day of thanks and for public prayer to take place. This was seen as a way of uniting the young country. But Thanksgiving was mostly left up to the states to declare until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared it a federal holiday. Every president thereafter declared it a holiday year after year until 1942 when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared 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 celebration 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 November 5th, 1963 stating:

Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in 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 celebration in England, goose was the go to meal. However geese weren’t as easy to obtain in the new world. Wild turkey and duck were more abundant when the settlers first came to America. Once settlers began settling into the new world, turkey was always available on the farm. Pigs were also always on the menu, so ham was a staple as well.

Odd History Fact: During the 1821 feast in Plymouth, the Wampanoag brought 5 deer and the settlers supplied water fowl. So there was likely no turkey at what many people think of as the first Thanksgiving.

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2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving – a short history of the origins and traditions”

  1. Pingback: Nursery Rhyme Origins - Wisedocks

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