The History of Thanksgiving

In the winter of 1620, a small band of English settlers washed up on the shores at what would become the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Known as Pilgrims, they had separated from the Church of England and had come to America in search of religious freedom.

But the Plymouth pilgrims were completely unprepared for the harsh New England winter. Their crops didn’t grow and they were poor hunters. By spring, only 52 settlers were still alive. Just when things looked hopeless, an English-speaking Native American man walked into the village one day and introduced himself. His name, he told the astonished Pilgrims, was Squanto.

Squanto knew how to survive the Massachusetts winter. Without the advice of Squanto and his tribesman, the Plymouth colony might well have disappeared. By fall, the inept farmers of the Plymouth plantation had a bumper crop of New World squash, pumpkins and corn. It was truly a miracle.

The pilgrims were solemn religious people but they continued to celebrate one holiday, the English fall festival of Harvest Home. In Europe, where farming was a way of life, Harvest Home was an annual celebration of nature’s good bounty. So, in the fall of 1621, the settlers of Plymouth invited the local Native Americans to join them in a New World Harvest Home.

King Massassoit, the leader of the local Wampanoag tribe, brought 90 men to what would become a three-day festival of games, songs, and goodly spirits. The party culminated in a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast, all prepared by the five surviving pilgrim women. Like today, the settlers of Plymouth served turkey for their Thanksgiving meal. They also dined on roast goose, cod fish, and most likely lobster.

This 1621 harvest meal is what’s now commonly considered the first Thanksgiving, and every fall there after, an all-purpose Thanksgiving was proclaimed by each colonial governor in honor of yet another record harvest. Since most New Englanders already went to church on Thursdays for a mid-week sermon, Thursday became a popular day to declare this fall tradition. By the mid-19th century, most states celebrated the holiday, but when they were declared could vary by weeks or months.

Every year, the governors had to proclaim the holiday anew. One never knew exactly when Thanksgiving was going to be. Establishing a national Thanksgiving Day would become the life-long ambition of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely circulated magazine of the mid 1800s. This 19th century Martha Stewart was concerned with more than household tips. She was worried about the fate of the country as slavery threatened to pull America apart. She saw Thanksgiving as a way of uniting the whole country on a single holiday that everyone could agree on.

Mrs. Hale ended every issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book with a plea for a single national Thanksgiving Day. Every year she wrote each state governor begging them to declare Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.

Abraham Lincoln understood the holiday’s unifying power, so in 1863, four months after the victory of Gettysburg, he declared the first national Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November. Mrs. Hale had finally gotten her wish.

As the 20th century approached, Thanksgiving became a welcome day of leisure from a 6-day work week. Parades became a Thanksgiving Day tradition and department stores quickly saw the value as a kick-off to the Christmas season. The Macy’s parade started in 1924 and after more than 80 years remains an important part of the American Thanksgiving experience.

Thanksgiving has also been used for political purposes. Every year the president of the United States is presented with a Thanksgiving turkey and in a gesture of solidarity with animal lovers, every president since WWII has pardoned the poor bird from its dinner-time fate.

To most Americans, Thanksgiving isn’t about Plymouth Rock, parades or politics; it’s about going home for the holidays.