Happy Thanksgiving! A Brief History of an Iconic America Holiday

Giving thanks through the medium of feasts, sacrifice, or ceremonies is a fairly common practice for cultures worldwide. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations are well-knowing for paying lavish tributes and hosting days-long, revelrous feasts to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Native American tribes also followed similar traditions for years, even before European settlers set foot in North America. 

Clearly, there’s more to Thanksgiving than what pop culture may lead you to believe. So let’s put aside the family drama, mashed potatoes and turkey, and the Macy’s parade to deep dive into annals of history and discover some lesser-known facts about Thanksgiving.

The Year of First Thanksgiving is Debated

As common knowledge has it, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, when the Mayflower Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. 

However, Historians believe that celebrations, quite like Thanksgiving, were commonly celebrated by the Spanish by sharing meals with the local Native American tribes during the 16th century. Some posit the celebration to be as early as May 1541 when Spanish explorers completed their expedition for gold from Mexico City, while others place it in 1610 in Jamestown Colony, Virginia, after the deathly famines.

Regardless, the celebration at Plymouth Colony is widely considered the first official celebration of Thanksgiving.

… And So Was the Date (Until Abe Fixed it)

A resolution was moved in the House and the Senate to mark a day of public prayer and thanksgiving. Following this incident, President George Washington formally declared 26th November 1789 as the First Presidential National Day of Thanksgiving. However, the date of Thanksgiving changed depending on when the President proclaimed it. For instance, the second day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1795 after the defeat of the Whiskey Rebellion.

However, Abraham Lincoln, through his proclamation in 1863, formalized the Thanksgiving celebrations to the last Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to move Thanksgiving a week earlier than normal to incentivize the economy. This decision split Thanksgiving into two separate dates, with 32 states following FDR’s orders and 16 states following tradition. Subsequently, Congress passed a joint resolution in 1941 to declare the last Thursday in November as the legal fixed date for celebrating Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Was Not Always About Turkeys

Segueing to the food, it is hard not to think of turkey when one thinks of Thanksgiving. However, records documenting the event suggest that the original Thanksgiving meal comprised of freshly killed deer, a bounty of cod and bass, assorted wildfowl, and flint (a native variety of corn eaten as cornbread and porridge). As such, venison should ideally be the meat for the day!

However, turkey made an appearance in the 1900s, and Thanksgiving called for a luxurious spread of oysters, roast turkey, quail, mince pies, and more. In more recent times, modern-day Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie became more common.

… But the Tradition of Pardoning Turkeys is Older Than One Thinks

According to the White House archives of 2011, twenty-two turkeys have been pardoned. However, the tradition goes far back – earlier than even 1989.

It is believed that Tad, Abraham Lincoln’s son, requested his father to write a presidential pardon for the bird meant for Christmas dinner. He based this request on the argument that the turkey had as much right to live as anyone, to which Lincoln acquiesced. President Kennedy returned the turkey to the farm, whereas President Nixon sent them to the petting farm near Washington.

It was President George H.W. Bush who officially granted a presidential turkey pardon on 14th November 1989, following which the tradition was born.

Thanksgiving is Celebrated in Other Countries

While Thanksgiving in America attracts a lot of hype, it is not the only country in the world celebrating it. There exist as many as sixteen other countries that celebrate their version of Thanksgiving. This list includes Canada, China, Germany, Grenada, Japan, Norfolk Island, South Korea, Liberia, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Brazil, Barbados, Ghana, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Israel. The primary theme surrounding Thanksgiving in these countries is to celebrate a successful harvest.

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