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History of Thanksgiving (and why we eat turkey!)

Thanksgiving decoration
A history of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving (USA) Origin and Background

Thanksgiving is a holiday where we give thanks for everything we have. People are typically thankful for family, friends, life, and entertainment, among other necessities in our lives.

But what is the exact origin and history of Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 when both English colonists and the Wampanoag Native American Tribe shared a feast.

People continued to celebrate the occasion for over two centuries until the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving Day would occur every November.

The Mayflower
The Pilgrims arrived in the New World on the Mayflower after a 66-day voyage.

Although the Wampanoag Native American tribe shared this feast, there is a lot of sadness for them surrounding Thanksgiving. Many Native Americans were slaughtered as North America was further colonized.

Here is a brief timeline explaining Thanksgiving’s origins, background, and history.

1621: The First Thanksgiving

On September 1620, the Mayflower ship departed from Plymouth, England, with 102 passengers.

Cooked turkey
Turkey is traditionally eaten on Thanksgiving.

These passengers had two ambitions. First, they wanted to move to a new place to practice and share their faith. They also wished to own and discover new land.

Mayflower arrives at Massachusetts Bay.

After traveling for 66 days, the Mayflower arrived in Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims settled and established a new village. 

In addition to the Pilgrims already living in Massachusetts Bay, different tribes of Native Americans (the first native people to live in Massachusetts Bay) greeted the Pilgrims.

These Native American tribes include the Abenaki, Pawtuxet, and Wampanoag tribes. 

Since the Pilgrims were suffering from malnutrition and illness, the chief of the Pawtuxet tribe taught them how to cultivate corn, extract sap from trees, catch fish, and avoid dangerous plants.

A feast for a successful harvest

When their first corn harvest was a success, the Pilgrims planned a feast with the native people to show their gratitude. In November 1621, the first Thanksgiving was held and lasted for three days.

A successful first corn harvest prompted Thanksgiving celebrations.

1623-1863: Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

In 1623, the Pilgrims celebrated their second Thanksgiving. Following that, it became common practice for the pilgrims and Native People to celebrate the harvest.

1789: After the American Revolution

In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation stating that Americans should celebrate Thanksgiving to express their gratitude for the war’s outcome. 

Part of the celebrations included a Thanksgiving Feast or Thanksgiving Dinner as an opportunity to gather with loved ones. A Thanksgiving Day Parade is also common.

1817: New York is one of several states to establish Thanksgiving

One of many states that embraced Thanksgiving as a holiday was New York. However, each state that established Thanksgiving as a holiday celebrated it on different days. 

food on table
Thanksgiving dinner.

The southern part of the United States was unaware of the holiday and didn’t celebrate it at all.

1827: Sarah Josepha Hale

A magazine editor and writer of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday

It took about 36 years for Thanksgiving to be recognized as an official national holiday.

1863: Thanksgiving becomes a national holiday

President Abraham Lincoln accepted the request to make Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War in 1863.

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the last Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November until President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the holiday forward by a week due to the effects of the Great Depression.

The date change was unpopular and didn’t last long before it was reverted to the last Thursday of November.

Why Is Thanksgiving on a Thursday?

One thing that has stayed constant with Thanksgiving is that it has always been celebrated on a Thursday in modern times.

wine glasses
Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity for a family celebration.

There is no particular reason why a Thursday was chosen, and it is unlikely that the original Thanksgiving was on a Thursday. 

However, Thursday was likely chosen as it gave distance by a few days from the Sabbath (Sunday). Also, it was not uncommon for ministers to give a sermon on a Thursday.

Note that Black Friday and Cyber Monday were not marked as shopping days until recently.

Thanksgiving in Modern Times

Since its establishment, Thanksgiving Day has become a national holiday in countries other than the United States, including Canada, Brazil, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Liberia, Leiden, Norfolk Island, and Puerto Rico.

Each country has a Thanksgiving celebration on a different day.

Typical food eaten during the holiday includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie instead of the original pilgrim tradition, where they ate lobster, seals, and swans.

Did the Pilgrims Eat Turkey on the First Thanksgiving?

It is doubtful that the pilgrims ate turkey on the first Thanksgiving. It is written that they did enjoy fowl, but this was more likely to be ducks or geese.

Photo of a turkey
It’s unlikely that the Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving.

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

We eat turkey because, in a contemporary account, wild turkeys were mentioned as being by the river while the pilgrims ate.

Even if there is no connection between Thanksgiving and turkeys, it is an excellent opportunity to eat a bird that is big enough for the whole family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

List of Thanksgiving Dates

When is Thanksgiving 2023?

Thursday 23rd November 2023

When is Thanksgiving 2024?

Thursday 28th November 2024

When is Thanksgiving 2025?

Thursday 27th November 2025

When is Thanksgiving 2026?

Thursday 26th November 2026

When is Thanksgiving 2027?

Thursday 25th November 2027

When is Thanksgiving 2028?

Thursday 23rd November 2028

When is Thanksgiving 2029?

Thursday 22nd November 2029

When is Thanksgiving 2030?

Thursday 28th November 2030

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