Various Spanish, French Huguenot, and English explorers and settlers in North America fell to their knees and gave thanks or proclaimed special days of thanksgiving in the late 1500s or early 1600s. Probably the earliest of these acts of thanksgiving was that of Ponce de Leon when he landed in Florida during Easter of 1513. "The first thanksgiving," as a Pilgrim feast in 1621 subsequently came to be known, was not a religious celebration. Instead, the Pilgrims held a three-day feast to celebrate the success of their first harvest sometime between September and early October in 1621. Their event resembled the English "harvest home" custom, a somewhat raucous, entirely secular harvest festival lacking any prayer services.
Fanciful portraits of Pilgrims seated at tables with their Indian guests have given false impressions about the nature of that first thanksgiving. It did include athletic contests, a military drill, and so many Native American guests that they outnumbered their Pilgrim hosts almost two to one. Roast duck, goose, and venison were served, and these items were probably washed down with beer. Whether the assembled also ate turkey is a matter of dispute. The Pilgrims had no harvest home celebration in 1621 or 1622, and held only sporadic ones after that. Thereafter individuals, churches, or colony-wide governments called for days of thanksgiving, largely on an ad hoc basis. The settlers of Plymouth Colony came to acquire their reputation as the national ancestors only in the 1760s. At that time, a group of Plymouth men formed a small local club to celebrate the day in December when the Pilgrims landed, which they deemed the most important way to commemorate the Pilgrims. Landing Day, also called Forefathers' Day, came to include a public feast, oratory, sermons, and fireworks. But it remained a public holiday and thus never developed the familial appeal of Thanksgiving.
The idea of Thanksgiving as a time for a family feast at first coexisted and then overwhelmed the public definition of the day provided in Forefathers' Day. (There was a brief revival of Forefathers' Day in the 1880s and 1890s, when members of the Society of Mayflower Descendants and other elite groups appropriated the day as an event to demonstrate their Anglo-Protestant/American ancestry.) The ideal of Thanksgiving as a family homecoming emerged in tandem with the cult of domesticity of the early nineteenth century. In this cult, the home became a secular shrine, and living adult children were urged to visit their elderly parents to enjoy a special home-cooked feast. Returning home to one's family in the countryside represented a way for city people to rediscover the simplicity and rural virtue they had left behind.
Never simply a holiday about the ideal of the family, Thanksgiving was also supposed to celebrate charitableness and national unity. New England writer Sarah Josepha Hale sang the praises of the New England Thanksgiving in her 1827 novel, Northwood. She became editor of a woman's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, and wrote yearly editorials in favor of a national holiday; she also published holiday recipes. In 1846, Hale began writing to governors, presidents, and missionaries, calling for a national day of Thanksgiving. As sectionalism over the Civil War identified the holiday with the North—abolitionist Protestant ministers even delivered sermons on the day—Hale countered by presenting Thanksgiving as a means of preventing war and a celebration of shared American values.
Presenting Thanksgiving as part of America's shared past was not a new idea, as it had occurred as early as the American Revolution. The Continental Congress had proclaimed thanksgiving days during the Revolutionary War, and three American presidents—George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison—also called for them. However, Presidents John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson considered the Thanksgiving a religious day, which violated constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state. Subsequent presidents (until Abraham Lincoln in 1863) accepted this view. Both sides in the Civil War called for days of thanksgiving to celebrate their military victories. In September 1863, Hale wrote to Lincoln urging him to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. The victory at Gettysburg as well as Hale's entreaties encouraged Lincoln to declare a national day of Thanksgiving that November. In l863, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. Ever since then presidents have issued such proclamations.
While states still had the power to decide their holidays, by the late nineteenth century most states had made Thanksgiving a legal holiday. Even so, Thanksgiving was mainly celebrated among the middle and upper classes, in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, and among Protestants. The Catholic Church opposed the holiday as a Protestant rite as late as the 1880s. African Americans tended to celebrate the holiday as a religious day, often giving thanks for emancipation.
There was a sporting tradition on Thanksgiving, since the English harvest home had been celebrated with sporting contests and hunting. Baseball games were commonly played on Thanksgiving in the 1860s and 1870s. The Thanksgiving Day football game began in the 1870s, as the culminating contest in the Ivy League football season. In 1876, four Ivy League schools established the Intercollegiate Football Association and scheduled the first championship game on Thanksgiving Day. Initially, football played on Thanksgiving was seen as a desecration of the religious and national meanings of the day. Ministers and college presidents failed in their efforts to put a stop to football on Thanksgiving. By the 1920s, football had become a form of home entertainment, mainly for the urban middle class who owned radios. By 1956, football games were televised, reinforcing the association between watching football and a festival celebrated in the home.
There had been parades on Thanksgiving since the late nineteenth century, and department stores sponsored Thanksgiving Day parades as early as 1920. Macy's Thanksgiving parade in Manhattan began in 1924. It was deliberately staged as a means of inaugurating the Christmas shopping season. The Macy's parade, like the introduction of football on Thanksgiving, was initially greeted with some consternation. Some patriotic groups protested because the Macy's parade had no national meaning and was held at the same time as morning church services. Macy's moved the parade to the afternoon, where it conflicted with football games. Organizers then decided to hold the parade in the morning, since they perceived greater conflict with football than with church services. In 1927 a puppeteer created the first giant balloons for the parade, thus adding color and overwhelming size to the pageant. The parade was canceled during World War II because of national rationing of helium and rubber. Hollywood enhanced the visibility of the parade in 1947 with the release of the film Miracle on 34th Street. In the film, Macy's parade and the endearing Santa Claus that participates in it contributed to the Dickensian definition of Christmas as a time of magic and goodness. A product placement for the store and its parade, the film opened with footage of the real parade.
The desire to revive the faltering economy during the Great Depression led to an ill-starred attempt to advance the date for Thanksgiving and provoked a lasting congressional response. In 1933, the National Retail Dry Goods Association urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Thanksgiving the third Thursday in November in order lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Roosevelt initially thought the calendric change would prove confusing, but he acceded to these requests in 1939. His proclamation affected only federal employees and the District of Columbia. Many state governors followed Roosevelt's lead, while others kept to tradition and a few proclaimed two Thanksgivings in November. Roosevelt's decision was highly unpopular, however. In 1941, Congress responded to popular outcry by changing the date for the observance of Thanksgiving to the last Thursday of November and passing legislation making Thanksgiving a national legal holiday. Wartime unity and congressional action during war no doubt contributed to this triumph of federalism.
Thanksgiving is often beloved as America's least commercialized holiday. Actually, Thanksgiving was a minor gift-giving occasion in the early nineteenth century. By the 1850s, advertisers were selling gift books of Thanksgiving. Greeting cards, paper goods, candies, flowers, restaurant meals, and travel packages have been and are now marketed on Thanksgiving. Since the early twentieth century, newspapers and magazines carry Thanksgiving ads. In the Thanksgiving edition of the Saturday Evening Post for 1931, an advertisement for Camels touted the holiday as "something to be thankful for." Nonetheless, all of these commercial signs are ignored since the looming presence of Christmas makes the somewhat commercial Thanksgiving appear to be the simple, homespun holiday Hale promoted.
Adamczyk, Amy. "On Thanksgiving and Collective Memory: Constructing the American Tradition." Journal of Historical Sociology 15 (2002): 343–365.
Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, New York: Facts on File, 1984.
Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Nylander, Jane C. Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760–1860. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
——. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Pope, S. W. Patriotic Games: Sporting Traditions in the American Imagination, 1876–1926. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Siskind, Janet. "The Invention of Thanksgiving: A Ritual of American Nationality." Critique of Anthropology 12 (1992): 167–191.
Elizabeth H. Pleck
THANKSGIVING. The classic representation of Thanksgiving—a crowded dinner table set in the open air on a golden autumnal afternoon in Plymouth Colony, 1621—might include some anachronisms such as apples, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and cranberry sauce, but the gathered Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian guests are sure to have one of the "great store of wild turkeys" if not the geese, ducks, and venison that founded the historic feast, bowls of assorted root vegetables, and pumpkin pies. It is an idyllic scene, but it has nothing to do with how the Thanksgiving holiday historically began in America.
There never was a true "first" American Thanksgiving from which all subsequent celebrations derived. Thanksgiving did not originate in America at all, but arrived with the intellectual baggage of New England's Puritan colonists. Having banished the medieval roster of holidays including Christmas and saint's days, the reformers admitted only three holy days: the Sabbath, fast days, and Thanksgivings. Fasts and Thanksgivings subsequently appeared independently in each of the New England colonies (except Rhode Island). Each was like an extra Sabbath during the week, requiring church attendance and sober activity, but a big dinner following the meeting was customary on days of thanksgiving and praise. Eventually, fast days were relegated to the spring (when there was nothing to eat) to petition God for a successful season, while autumnal Thanksgivings celebrated the cumulative blessings of the year, including the fruits of the harvest.
As Puritans metamorphosed into Yankees, the social and gustatory character of the day overtook and then equaled the religious observation in consequence. The preparation for the feast began weeks before with Sunday readings of the governor's proclamation. Apples, spices, suet and lean beef were chopped for mincemeat. Massive numbers of pies and tarts were baked of mince, pumpkin, apple, cranberry, and other fillings, intended to last well beyond the holiday. Livestock and fowl were slaughtered and prepared for the spit, pot, or chicken pie (which might take six birds, bones and all). The requisite turkey was gotten from the barnyard, market, or turkey shoot where poor shots underwrote the costs of better marksmen. Charity was an important holiday element. Food supplies, unprepared (including flour, rice, sugar, and even turkeys) or cooked, were given to the poor by prosperous families and sent to prisons by town officials.
As Thanksgiving approached, family and friends assembled at the patriarchal homesteads. Thanksgiving balls were very popular, and women made sure that their clothes were the best and newest possible, despite grumbling about impious frivolity among the more devout. On the day itself, the more respectable attended morning service in the meetinghouse, before returning for the customary feast prepared by the women and servants of the household. The significators of a true New England Thanksgiving dinner were firmly established by the time of the American Revolution: the all-important turkey in place of honor, the massive chicken pie flanked by ducks, geese, and cuts of "butcher's meat," plum pudding, bowls of vegetable and fruit "sass" (sauce), and of course the pies. Following the dinner, the company might relax around the fire with wine or cider, dried fruits, and nuts to play games, tell stories, or in more pious households, to continue their religious exercises in the private sphere and welcome the minister's evening call. Alternately, sleighing visits to other households were popular, as were dances and weddings.
Even before 1800, many households got their holiday foodstuffs not from the family farmstead but in the marketplace. The food was processed, prepared, and served by the housewife to as many family, friends, and dependents as could be accommodated. Later, the emphasis shifted to kin rather than community, but the classic Thanksgiving bill of fare, based on what was available in November in colonial New England, remained sacrosanct. Over the years the ideal of a home-prepared meal and informal family gathering has sent generations of women seeking the advice of experts from Catherine Beecher to Martha Stewart. Regional and ethnic variations were allowed, but the iconic turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin (or squash) pie consecrated all true Thanksgiving meals.
The first of ten national Thanksgivings was declared by the Continental Congress in 1777. After 1815, there were no further presidential proclamations despite annual editorial pleadings by Mrs. Hale in Godey's Magazine, but the popularity of the holiday grew apace. By the 1850s, Thanksgiving was celebrated in almost every state and territory, its national character assured. Abraham Lincoln declared two Thanksgivings in 1863, the second in November being the first of our modern national holidays, but it was not until 1941 after Roosevelt fiddled with the date with an eye to Christmas sales that Congress established the fourth Thursday as a legal holiday. Aside from packaged versions of traditional foods, expenses associated with holiday travel, and a moderate amount of decorative kitsch, the holiday also escaped the exploitive commercialism of other American holidays. Restaurants take advantage of the holiday to sell turkey dinners, and those dedicated purveyors of classic Thanksgiving fare, the armed services, do their best, but Thanksgiving retains its strongly domestic focus.
In light of their modern importance as the symbols of the holiday, it might be asked. "What about the Pilgrims?" The fact is that the famous description of the 1621 harvest festival in Mourt's Relation had been entirely forgotten before being rediscovered in 1822 and identified as the "First Thanksgiving" by Alexander Young in 1841. No one had associated the Plymouth colonists and Indian guests with the holiday before. However, in 1841 the event resembled contemporary Thanksgivings, even if it had not been so regarded by the original participants. The concept took time to catch on, as the Pilgrims had other symbolic burdens to bear, and Thanksgiving still implied family reunions, turkeys, and Yankee homesteads to most people. It wasn't until a fictional account appeared in the bestselling Standish of Standish (1889) that the Plymouth association gained widespread popularity, and only after World War II did the Pilgrims become the primary significators of the holiday.
See also American Indians ; Christianity ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Holidays ; Icon Foods ; Religion and Food ; United States: New England .
[Abbott, Jacob.] New England and Her Institutions by One of Her Sons. Boston: John Allen, 1835.
Appelbaum, Diana. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York: Facts on File, 1984.
Austin, Jane G. Standish of Standish. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889.
Beecher, Catherine. Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt-Book. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1846.
DeLoss Love, William. Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.
Hale, Mrs. Sarah Josepha. Northwood; or, Life North and South, 2d ed. New York: Long, 1852.
Heath, Dwight B., ed. A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Mourt's Relation). New York: Corinth Books, 1963.
Howland, Mrs. E. A. The New England Economical Housekeeper. New London: Bolles and Williams, 1848.
Sickel, H. S. J. Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History with All National Proclamations and Analytical Study Thereof. Philadelphia: International Printing, 1940.
Stow, Harriet Beecher. Oldtown Folks. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1869.
Young, Alexander. Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Boston: Little, Brown, 1846.
James W. BakerPeggy M. Baker
A national holiday in the United States since 1863, Thanksgiving has come to play a number of important roles in popular culture. It was customary in Europe to hold days of thanksgiving both for successful harvests and for events such as military victories, deliverance from plagues, and royal births. The date and site of the first Thanksgiving in what is now the United States are still debated, but the most famous in pre-independence times was that held in October, 1621 in the Plymouth Colony. There, European immigrants, "the Pilgrims," and indigenous Wampanoag Indians celebrated the harvest season with feasting that included the dish that would become a traditional part of the day: turkey. Throughout the colonial era, days of thanksgiving were common, especially in New England, but not universal or regular. Although national days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by the Continental Congress in 1777 and by President Washington in 1789, there was no great clamor for an annual festival until the nineteenth century.
Credit for the establishment of Thanksgiving Day as a nationwide holiday must go to Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the editor of an influential women's magazine (and author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb") who lobbied legislatures and presidents from 1827 on. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a day of "thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," and since then it has been an annual celebration, though the date has varied. From 1939-1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in response to the complaints of businessmen that there was insufficient shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the third Thursday in November. This, however, created conflicts with the dating of the holiday in many states which had their own Thanksgiving legislation, so Congress in 1941 passed a joint resolution decreeing that the observance should fall on the fourth Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving, as a non-denominational harvest festival, is part of the American civic religion, able to be celebrated by people of any faith or none at all. It is marked by Pilgrim pageants, the decoration of schools, churches, and shopping malls with harvest themes, proclamations by politicians voicing gratitude for the country's prosperity, and the televising of college and professional football games. Above all, it is the day the extended family gathers for a dinner with a menu that has become stereotypical, almost invariably including turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Americans abroad observe the day (in a way they would not trouble themselves for Memorial Day or Presidents' Day, for example) and attempt to duplicate this traditional meal as best they can in a foreign setting. The illustrator Norman Rockwell's depictions of this family feast have become American icons.
Thanksgiving, in the shorthand of popular culture, stands for family togetherness for good or ill. Motion pictures such as Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) and Dutch (1991) have been built around the utter necessity of returning home, whatever the obstacles, for this holiday. The final scene of Raising Arizona (1987) is a dream sequence in which a dysfunctional and childless couple are blessed in the future by the arrival of children and grandchildren for a Rockwell-style Thanksgiving. On the other hand, films like The Ice Storm (1997) and Home for the Holidays (1995) use the Thanksgiving setting in a claustrophobic way to emphasize the troubles of a family gone wrong.
Thanksgiving also marks the semi-official launch of another holiday: Christmas. As early as 1889 a New York newspaper claimed that "as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume." Thanksgiving Parades, especially Macy's in New York and that on Los Angeles' Santa Claus Lane, usher in the shopping season.
Cohen, Hennig, and Tristam Potter Coffin, editors. The Folklore of American Holidays. Detroit, Gale Research, 1987.
Hatch, Jane M. The American Book of Days. New York, H.W.Wilson, 1978.
THANKSGIVING DAY. Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday imitated only by Canadians, was first established as an annual event by Abraham Lincoln in a proclamation dated 3 October 1863. Expressing hope amidst the continuing Civil War, it was a response to the campaign of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, to nationalize an autumn festival already observed by most of the states. Sporadic days of thanksgiving had been previously appointed by national leaders, such as those honoring military victories during the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the War of 1812 and one by George Washington to celebrate the new Constitution on 26 November 1789. The origin of the holiday is rooted in New England practices of prayer and feasting, most symbolically enacted by the three-day harvest celebration in 1621 between the Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony and ninety Wampanoag, an event briefly mentioned in the histories written by Plymouth governors William Bradford and Edward Winslow.
This First Thanksgiving has been widely promoted since the late nineteenth century as a source of national origins. The types of public events during Thanksgiving have changed over time and have included church services, shooting matches, and—in nineteenth-century cities—military parades, masquerades, child begging, and charity banquets. Persisting public activities include games between football rivals (beginning in 1876) and spectacular commercially sponsored parades, such as the Macy's parade in New York City starting in 1924. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the traditional observance from the last to the penultimate Thursday in 1939 (a year when November had five Thursdays) to extend the holiday shopping season. The controversy surrounding the alteration, however, led to a congressional resolution in 1941 that fixed the official holiday as the fourth Thursday in November. The heavy volume of travel over the four-day weekend originated in the nineteenth-century tradition of homecoming, when urban residents returned to celebrate their rural roots and feast on native foods such as turkey (which is such a central symbol that the holiday is sometimes called Turkey Day).
Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York: Facts On File, 1984.
Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
See alsoHolidays and Festivals .
thanks·giv·ing / ˌ[unvoicedth]angksˈgiving/ • n. 1. the expression of gratitude, esp. to God: he offered prayers in thanksgiving for his safe arrival | he described the service as a thanksgiving. 2. (Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day) (in North America) an annual national holiday marked by religious observances and a traditional meal including turkey. The holiday commemorates a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, and is held in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday in November. A similar holiday is held in Canada, usually on the second Monday in October.
Thanksgiving Day (in North America) an annual national holiday marked by religious observances and a traditional meal including turkey. The holiday commemorates a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621, and is held in the US on the fourth Thursday in November. A similar holiday is held in Canada, usually on the second Monday in October.