The History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has its roots in many different origins and traditions. While today, Americans celebrate the day with friends and family, watching the Macy’s parade and football on the television, and eating turkey, it certainly didn’t start out that way. In the years between the Wampanoag Native American tribe and the Pilgrims first feast together and today’s modern national holiday, many changes have occurred, both in the traditions and in the politics that surround the holiday.

After the first winter the Pilgrims spent at Plymouth in 1620, they were left with only half of their original numbers and very little left-over food. With the help of Squanto, a Native American who had learned English years earlier due to a forced captivity in England, the Pilgrims were taught how to plant food and how to survive on this foreign continent. In November of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated the bountiful harvest that was brought to them because of their alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, one that Squanto had helped them cultivate. According to an article written by staff, the festival lasted three days. The food, as noted by Pilgrim, Edward Winslow, was the “five deer” brought by the Wampanoag and whatever was foraged from a “fowling” mission by the Pilgrims.

The second Thanksgiving was held in 1623 “to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Governor Bradford [the colony’s leader] to call for a religious fast ( staff).” Other New England colonies soon adopted this tradition.

The origins of the name ‘Thanksgiving’ came from the “practices of Puritan New England… a true Thanksgiving was a day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking god for His special Providence” (Plimoth Plantation). These holidays were never held on a Sunday but were performed when they were determined to be needed by a community. The Thanksgiving held by the Pilgrims, and by the colonies that took up the tradition, became the first annual Thanksgiving and had a much different meaning than the Puritan thanksgivings as it was a celebratory feast that took place to thank God for his gifts, quite the opposite of the fasts held by the Puritans. Plimoth Plantation’s article also states that “by the 1850’s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving was not an official holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln was prompted by Sarah Joseph Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to declare it a national holiday. President Lincoln was persuaded and urged Americans “to ask God to ‘commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation”’ ( staff). He set the date for Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of each November. This date remained until the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November so that retail sales might increase during the Great Depression. Americans did not appreciate his attempt, however, and Congress permanently changed Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later (Plimoth Plantation).

As most Americans don’t depend on their own farming abilities for their food sources, the holiday has changed from its previous harvest-focus to be more family-oriented, as people are grateful to be able to come together to celebrate with their friends and family. The tradition of the big feast has grown to include the traditional staples of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, and the festivities have been cemented into ones that revolve around the living room television. Americans have more to be grateful for than ever, and a holiday that centers on family reminds us of this fact every last Thursday in November. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!



Works Cited staff. “Thanksgiving 2018.” 2009. August 2018.

Plimoth Plantation. “Thanksgiving History.” n.d.<;.




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