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A History of Thanksgiving and Its Traditions

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Turkeys, squashes, parades, and pumpkins. Native Americans, Pilgrims, and a feast that time embellished. Thanksgiving is full of traditions that reflect various pieces of American history, yet most people know nothing about them.

So where does Thanksgiving really come from? Why do we celebrate in the ways that we do? Why eat turkey and pies?

The answers are closer to today than you probably thought...

The first Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

In 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered to celebrate the fall harvest. And celebrate they did: the previous year had been an outright nightmare. Arriving in America in late 1620, the Pilgrims had faced a land that they knew almost nothing about, were frightened by tales of hostile natives, and the onset of a harsh New England winter. They barely had time to construct a home or two, let alone plant and harvest crops. The pilgrims had to survive on the supplies they had left from their journey across the Atlantic, living in close quarters and venturing to the mainland to gather only what was necessary. All the while hoping that they would survive to start a new life in this new world.

Most of the colonists spent the winter onboard their ship, suffering from exposure, scurvy, and disease. They were in a new world, facing new pathogens for which they had little immunity, and were in very close quarters. Of the 102 that had survived the perilous crossing from Europe, 45 would die during that long winter. The dead were buried on Cole's Hill in unmarked graves, undisturbed until their remains were collected in 1921 and placed in a memorial tomb on Cole's Hill. In March, the survivors moved to shore, where an Abenaki Indian waited for them. The natives had been watching the newcomers through the winter. Much to the Pilgrims' surprise, the Abenaki Indian greeted them in English!

This initial visit would prove the key to the Pilgrims survival: they would form a friendship with the Abenaki and his friend, Squanto (who also spoke English). This friendship would blossom into an alliance with the nearby Wampanoag tribe. Guided by Squanto and the Wapanoags, the Pilgrims learned to survive in New England: cultivating corn, extracting sap, catching fish, and knowing which plants were poisonous. They came to know the land around them and how to make best use of the local resources. Their alliance would survive for more than 50 years.

So, in the fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast. The summer had been fruitful, so much that Bradford even wrote that there "was no want." The Wampanoags were invited. The festival lasted for three days. What little we know comes from the chronicles of Edward Winslow, who wrote that the feast "served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others."

Bradford and Winslow's accounts also detail that the dishes included fowl, turkeys, venison, meal (ground corn), and Indian corn. Most of the dishes were likely Native American dishes, since the Pilgrims had no oven and their sugar supplies were dwindling. Thus, the first Thanksgiving was likely a mix of deer, foul, berries, corn, squashes, and gourds -- without the pies, stuffing, and gravy we know today.

So if what we know today is not quite what the Pilgrims experienced, where did the rest come from?

Norman Rockwell's take on Thanksgiving.

Norman Rockwell's take on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Continues

The next "Thanksgiving" occurred in 1623, when the Pilgrims celebrated the end of a long drought. Such celebrations became common in the new colonies, often celebrating the end of a long tribulation. By the time of the American Revolution, such days were common but never celebrated on a nation-wide scale on the same day. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government, calling for gratitude that the country's war of independence was over and the Constitution had been successfully ratified.

The first "official" Thanksgiving was adopted by the state of New York in 1817. Several states followed, but the holiday was never celebrated by two states on the same day and was largely confined to the Northern states. There were calls for a national holiday, notably by Sarah Josepha Hale who advocated for 36 years. Her request was finally granted by President Lincoln in 1863. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln issued a proclamation scheduling Thanksgiving for the final weekend in November. Thanksgiving had become a national holiday.

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Then, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in hopes of boosting retail sales during the Great Depression. However, his choice was met with much opposition and reversed in 1941, when FDR signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

President Obama pardons a turkey, granting him a life of leisure on the farm and the promise to never end up on the dinner table!

President Obama pardons a turkey, granting him a life of leisure on the farm and the promise to never end up on the dinner table!

Today's Traditions

Today, Thanksgiving is still about giving thanks. Though it's not strictly about celebrating the end of a hard year or giving thanks for surviving the war, it's about being thankful for everything that we have. And it's all celebrated around a great feast. But why turkey?

Turkey is eaten by nearly 90% of Americans on Thanksgiving Day, in a variety of ways. The primary reason is because, historically, turkey (and large poultry in general) was a fresh, affordable way to feed a big crowd. They were cheeper than geese and chicken, which especially helped 19th century families who used Thanksgiving as a day to bake meat and pies that would last through the winter. Additionally, turkeys that were born in the spring would weigh nearly 10 pounds by Thanksgiving. The menu was further popularized by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), when Scrooge's gift of a Christmas turkey to the Cratchits helped cement the turkey as a holiday staple. Charities of the time followed suit, giving out turkeys to working class and poor immigrants, thereby cementing the turkey as an all-American holiday meal.

The rest of the meal followed suit. Stuffing was commonly used in meals feating chickens, turkeys, swans, etc. as a means of instilling flavor in the meat. The squashes, gourds, and pumpkins made into a variety of dishes were all in season during Thanksgiving, thus they were readily available and fresh. As the years wore on, Americans embellished the dishes: adding what their own families preferred and could afford, as well as new dishes made available to consumers through better technology and wider distribution.

There are non-food traditions as well. Every year, the President pardons one of two live turkeys during a special White House ceremony. The turkeys live out their lives on a farm, spared from ever ending up on the dinner table.

Additionally, many families find Thanksgiving to be an excellent time for volunteering. Some serve food at homeless shelters, while others participate in various food drives. The reasons are varied, though they likely stem from ancient harvest traditions when whole communities would gather to celebrate and share the proceeds of a successful harvest before settling in for a long, cold winter.

There are also many traditions that are unique to each family. My family always makes a yummy breakfast on Thanksgiving (usually cinnamon rolls), then we turn on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to watch as we begin preparing the feast. Throughout the day, family members arrive at our home, watching the parades and football games while talking, laughing, and playing. Then we gather together at the table, sharing in food, memories, and playful banter. After the meal, those who had cooked would relax while the others would share in the clean-up duties and giving leftovers to our dogs. Finally, we'd split off into different activities: taking naps, going to the movie theater for a new release, playing games, or sitting together on the couch enjoying pie while watching the ends of football games.

What traditions does your family do on Thanksgiving? What's your favorite Thanksgiving tradition?

© 2013 Tiffany Isselhardt


Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on November 25, 2015:

Very interesting and informative. Any lay man can learn a lot about thanksgiving by reading your hub. The history and traditions of this Thanksgiving festival are great and wonderful. Thanks for sharing this beautiful hub.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 16, 2013:

Southern Muse, our family traditions on Thanksgiving Day is very much like yours -- the traditional cinnamon rolls with coffee start the day early and cheerfully. My mother always had those fresh cinnamon rolls ready for us. You have portrayed the original pilgrim/Indian harvest feast and the history of Thanksgiving, how it grew into traditions throughout the years and what it means today -- and you did so in a very well-written hub. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

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