Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, is a holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It became an official Federal holiday in 1863, when, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Also, there are reports that the original Thanksgiving proclamation was signed by George Washington. As a federal and public holiday in the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of the major holidays of the year. Together with Christmas and New Year, Thanksgiving is a part of the broader holiday season.
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans (as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow) and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
The concept of setting aside time to give thanks for one’s blessings is almost as old as the settlement of the North American continent itself. According to author James Baker, debates over where any “first Thanksgiving” took place on modern American territory are a “tempest in a beanpot”.
“Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land.”
The first documented thanksgiving services in territory currently belonging to the United States were conducted by Spaniards in the 16th century. Thanksgiving services were routine in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607, with the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610.
On December 4, 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred. The group’s charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving” to God. On that first day, Captain John Woodlief held the service of thanksgiving. As quoted from the section of the Charter of Berkeley Hundred specifying the thanksgiving service: “We ordain that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” After the Indian massacre of 1622, the Berkeley Hundred site and other outlying locations were abandoned as the colonists withdrew to Jamestown and other more secure points. According to Baker, “the American holiday’s true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God’s providence.”
Harvest Festival Observed by the Pilgrims at Plymouth:
Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the Plymouth settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season. Autumn or early winter feasts continued sporadically in later years, first as an impromptu religious observance, and later as a civil tradition.
Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them (Squanto had learned English during travels in England). Additionally the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
The Pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth for three days after their first harvest, in 1621. The exact time is unknown, but James Baker, then Plymouth Plantation vice president of research, stated in 1996, “The event occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (Sept. 29), the traditional time.” Seventeenth-century accounts do not identify this as a thanksgiving observance, rather it followed the harvest. It included 50 Pilgrims (all who remained of the 100 who had landed) and 90 Native Americans who were invited as guests. The feast was cooked by the four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna (White) Winslow), along with young daughters and male and female servants.
Two colonists gave personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims, most of whom were Separatists (English Dissenters), are not to be confused with Puritans who established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby (current day Boston) in 1628. Both groups were strict Calvinists, but differed in their views regarding The Church of England. Puritans wished to remain in the Anglican Church and reform it, and Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the church.
Foods of the Season:
U.S. tradition compares the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is continued in modern times with the Thanksgiving dinner, traditionally featuring turkey, playing a central role in the celebration of Thanksgiving.
In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Firstly, baked or roasted turkey is usually the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table (so much so that Thanksgiving is sometimes referred to as “Turkey Day”). Stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables (mainly various kinds of squashes), and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. All of these are actually native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans when they arrived. Turkey may be an exception. In his book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that the Pilgrims might already have been familiar with turkey in England, even though the bird is native to the Americas. The Spaniards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a “fixture at English Christmases”.
The poor are often provided with food at Thanksgiving time. Most communities have annual food drives that collect non-perishable packaged and canned foods, and corporations sponsor charitable distributions of staple foods and Thanksgiving dinners. Additionally, pegged to be five days after Thanksgiving is Giving Tuesday, a celebration of charitable giving.
Thanksgiving was founded as a religious observance for all the members of the community to give thanks to God for a common purpose. Historic reasons for community thanksgivings are: the 1541 thanksgiving mass after the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado safely crossing the high plains of Texas and finding game, and the 1777 thanksgiving after the victory in the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga. In his 1789 National Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Washington gave many noble reasons for a national Thanksgiving, including “for the civil and religious liberty”, for “useful knowledge”, and for God’s “kind care” and “His Providence”. After President Washington delivered this message, the “Episcopal Church, of which President Washington was a member, announced that the first Thursday in November would become its regular day for giving thanks”. After Washington, the only presidents to express a specifically Christian perspective in their proclamation have been Grover Cleveland in 1896, and William McKinley in 1900. Several other presidents have cited the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The tradition of giving thanks to God is continued today in many forms, most notably the attendance of religious services, as well as the saying of a mealtime prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. Many houses of worship offer worship services and events on Thanksgiving themes the weekend before, the day of, or the weekend after Thanksgiving. At home, it is a holiday tradition in many families to begin the Thanksgiving dinner by saying grace (a prayer before or after a meal). The custom is portrayed in the photograph “Family Holding Hands and Praying Before a Thanksgiving Meal”. Before praying, it is a common practice at the dining table for “each person [to] tell one specific reason they’re thankful to God that year.” While grace is said, many families hold hands until the prayer concludes, often indicated with an “Amen”. Traditionally, grace was led by the hostess or host, though in later times it is usual for others to contribute.
Joy Fisher, a Baptist Christian writer, states that “this holiday takes on a spiritual emphasis and includes recognition of the source of the blessings they enjoy year round — a loving God.” In the same vein, Hesham A. Hassaballa, an American Muslim scholar and physician, has written that Thanksgiving “is wholly consistent with Islamic principles” and that “few things are more Islamic than thanking God for His blessings”. Similarly many Sikh Americans also celebrate the holiday by “giving thanks to Almighty”.
Vacation and Travel:
On Thanksgiving Day, families and friends usually gather for a large meal or dinner. Consequently, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Thanksgiving is a four-day or five-day weekend vacation for schools and colleges. Most business and government workers (78% in 2007) are given Thanksgiving and the day after as paid holidays. Thanksgiving Eve, the night before Thanksgiving, is one of the busiest nights of the year for bars and clubs (where it is often identified by the derogatory name Blackout Wednesday), as many college students and others return to their hometowns to reunite with friends and family.
Since 1924, in New York City, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually every Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally by NBC. The parade features parade floats with specific themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon characters, TV personalities, and high school marching bands. The float that traditionally ends the Macy’s Parade is the Santa Claus float, the arrival of which is an unofficial sign of the beginning of the Christmas season.
Also founded in 1924, America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit is one of the largest parades in the country. The parade runs from Midtown to Downtown Detroit and precedes the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving football game. The parade includes large balloons, marching bands, and various celebrity guests much like the Macy’s parade and is nationally televised on various affiliate stations. The Mayor of Detroit closes the parade by giving Santa Claus a key to the city.
There are Thanksgiving parades in many other cities, including:
Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Ameren Missouri Thanksgiving Day Parade (St. Louis, Missouri)
America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Parade (Plymouth, Massachusetts)
Belk Carolinas’ Carrousel Parade (Charlotte, North Carolina)
FirstLight Federal Credit Union Sun Bowl Parade (El Paso, Texas)
H-E-B Holiday Parade (Houston, Texas)
McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade (Chicago, Illinois)
My Macy’s Holiday Parade (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Parada de los Cerros Thanksgiving Day Parade (Fountain Hills, Arizona)
UBS Parade Spectacular (Stamford, Connecticut) – held the Sunday before Thanksgiving so it doesn’t directly compete with the Macy’s parade 30 miles (48 km) away.
Most of these parades are televised on a local station, and some have small, usually regional, syndication networks; most also carry the parades via Internet television on the TV stations’ websites.
Several other parades have a loose association with Thanksgiving, thanks to CBS’s now-discontinued All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage. Parades that were covered during this era were the Aloha Floral Parade held in Honolulu, Hawaii every September, the Toronto Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the Opryland Aqua Parade (held from 1996 to 2001 by the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville); the Opryland parade was discontinued and replaced by a taped parade in Miami Beach, Florida in 2002. A Disneyland parade was also featured on CBS until Disney purchased rival ABC.
For many years the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now Hollywood Christmas Parade) in Los Angeles was held on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. In 1978 this was switched to the Sunday following the holiday.
Days After Thanksgiving:
The day after Thanksgiving is a day off for some companies and most schools. It is known as Black Friday (or sometimes Buy Nothing Day, for those who oppose shopping on that day) because it is a popular shopping day. President George W. Bush signed into law legislation introduced by Congressman Joe Baca (D-Rialto), to designate the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. The Native American Heritage Day Bill was supported by the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and 184 federally recognized tribes, and designates Friday, November 28, 2008, as a day to pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Small Business Saturday, a movement promoting shopping at smaller local establishments. The Monday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Cyber Monday, which encourages shopping online. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Giving Tuesday, to encourage charitable giving.
“Thanksgiving”, by Florence Earle Coates.
“Over the River and Through the Wood”, by Lydia Maria Child
“Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986”, by William S. Burroughs in Tornado Alley.
“Jingle Bells”, a song by James Lord Pierpont in 1857.
“A Hymn of Thanksgiving”, composed and written by Fanny J. Crosby and Ira D. Sankey, 1899.
“Alice’s Restaurant”, a song by Arlo Guthrie on his 1967 album Alice’s Restaurant, based on a true incident in his life that began on Thanksgiving Day, 1965.
“Thanksgiving”, a song by George Winston on his 1982 album December.
“The Thanksgiving Song”, a song by Adam Sandler on his 1994 album They’re All Gonna Laugh at You!
“Thanksgiving Day Parade”, a song by Dan Bern on his 2001 album New American Language.
“Thanksgiving Day”, a song by Ray Davies on his 2006 album Other People’s Lives.