How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

Although the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is usually regarded as the first Thanksgiving, other states disagree. Maine claims to have the held the earliest Thanksgiving fourteen years before the Plymouth holiday. The celebration had much in common with Plymouth’s, since English settlers shared a large meal with local Native Americans near the Kennebec River. Virginia held a religious service in 1619 after colonists landed safely at a place called Berkeley Hundred, located up the river from Jamestown. Neither the Maine nor the Virginia settlements survived, which is likely why the Plymouth Colony gets credit for the first Thanksgiving.

The colonists at Plymouth didn’t plan on making Thanksgiving an annual holiday, however. Instead, they held days of thanksgiving whenever they felt especially grateful to God. For example, in 1623, Plymouth’s crops withered. When rain fell, the colonists held a day of thanksgiving prayer. Basically, in bad times the Pilgrims fasted, and in good times they gave thanks.

Even in the eighteenth century, governors of various states proclaimed days of Thanksgiving irregularly. Some skipped the custom altogether. During the Revolutionary War, leaders in Congress sometimes proclaimed a day of thanksgiving following a military victory. As president, George Washington named November 26, 1789 as a day to give thanks for the new U.S. Constitution. For the most part, however, states chose when or if they wanted to hold a thanksgiving celebration.

By the nineteenth century, Sarah Hale led a campaign for an annual Thanksgiving Day. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she used her public position to write editorials and send letters to government officials. Gradually, governors of various states proclaimed annual days of thanksgiving. Even President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet Sarah Hale still remained dissatisfied. She wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, not one celebrated for military victories by the government or selected by individual states. She found a sympathetic listener in President Lincoln. He proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day for the last Thursday of November 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation stated, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” The new holiday offered hope for the future of a nation torn apart by civil war. After the war, the former Confederate states joined in the national celebration.

Only one president tried to change the date of Thanksgiving. In an effort to help the struggling economy, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November of 1939 so consumers had more shopping days before Christmas. The public disagreed so strongly with the change that Congress adopted a resolution firmly establishing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

How was the First Thanksgiving Different from Today’s Celebrations?

If you live in the U.S., you are probably looking forward to Thanksgiving with your family. Maybe Grandma or Mom will serve turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie and you’ll watch football on TV. Although the first Thanksgiving included food, sports, and a large number of people, it was also different from present day celebrations.

While Americans today see Thanksgiving as a time to reconnect with family members, the Pilgrims had a very basic reason for giving thanks in 1621—the fact that they managed to survive in a strange land. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they had little idea what crops would thrive there. They planted acres of wheat and peas, neither of which survived. Their survival depended on the aid of a Native American named Squanto. He taught them how to plant a new crop—corn–so that by harvest they had twenty acres of it. The colony’s governor William Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims “began to plant their own corn, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it.” Squanto also told them how to fertilize their crop: “Also he told them, except they got fish and set with it in these old grounds it would come to nothing.” The first harvest wasn’t huge, but the Pilgrims could double each person’s food ration by adding corn.

As a result of the successful harvest, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate. The colonists invited Squanto and members of neighboring Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. One colonist, Edward Winslow, described “many Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” While Americans today celebrate for one day, the Pilgrims feasted for three days! The menu was large and included fowl (duck and goose) shot by the colonists and deer brought by the Native Americans. Seafood, corn bread, and greens were also served. For dessert, the participants ate wild fruit. Although turkey was available to the colonists, there is no evidence that it was eaten on the first Thanksgiving.  There was no pumpkin pie, either, though pumpkins were available in their raw form.

Sports and games also were a part of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims did not play football, but they engaged in other games with the Native Americans. They played a game similar to croquet and competed in running and jumping games. The English showed off their skill with guns, and the Native Americans showed their talent for shooting with bows and arrows.

When you see your relatives on Thanksgiving, see if they can guess what food was eaten and what sports played during the first Thanksgiving.