Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated in North America, generally observed as an expression of gratitude. The most common view of its origin is that it was to give thanks to God for the bounty of the autumn harvest. In the United States, the holiday is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, where the harvest generally ends earlier in the year, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday in October, which is observed as Columbus Day in the United States.
Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated with a feast shared with family and friends. In the United States, it is an important family holiday, and people often travel across the country to be with family members for the holiday. The Thanksgiving holiday is generally a “four-day” weekend in the United States, in which Americans are given the relevant Thursday and Friday off. Thanksgiving is almost entirely celebrated at home, unlike the Fourth of July or Christmas, which are associated with a variety of shared public experiences (fireworks, caroling, etc.) In Canada Thanksgiving is only a three day holiday and the holiday is not as important as in the US. Because of the shortened break there is far less travel on the Canadian Thanksgiving and it is far harder for families to come together. In part because of this, Christmas is far more family oriented in Canada than it is in the United States.
Since at least the 1930s, the Christmas shopping season technically begins when Thanksgiving ends. In New York City, the Macy’s (department store) Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually every Thanksgiving Day in Midtown Manhattan. The parade features moving stands with specific themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon characters and TV personalities, and high school marching bands. It always ends with the image of Santa Claus passing the reviewing stand. While the second-biggest day of shopping of the year in the U.S. is still the Black Friday after Thanksgiving (the biggest is now the Saturday before Christmas), most shops start to stock for and promote the holidays immediately after Halloween, and sometimes even before.
U.S. tradition associates the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Some of the details of the American Thanksgiving story are myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s as part of the effort to forge a common national identity in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the melting pot of new immigrants.
The History of Thanksgiving
in North America
Thanksgiving is closely related to harvest festivals that had long been a traditional holiday in much of Europe. The first time one of these festivals was celebrated in North American was by the Frobisher Expedition in 1578. Another event claiming to be the first Thanksgiving occurred on December 4, 1619 when 38 colonists from Berkeley Parish in England landed in Virginia and gave thanks to God. Most people recognize the first Thanksgiving as taking place in December 1621, when the Pilgrims held a three-day feast to celebrate the bountiful harvest they reaped following their first winter in North America.
Two American colonists have personal accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving in Massachusetts:
William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation: They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their house and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned by true reports.
Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation: Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among 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 we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The Pilgrims did not hold Thanksgiving again until 1623, when it followed a drought, prayers for rain and a subsequent rain shower. Irregular Thanksgivings continued after favorable events and days of fasting after unfavorable ones. Gradually an annual Thanksgiving after the harvest developed in the mid-1600s. This did not occur on any set day or necessarily on the same day in different colonies.
Some, including historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., point out that the first time colonists from Europe gave thanks in what would become the United States was on December 4, 1619, in Berkeley, Virginia. That was when the thirty-eight members of The Berkeley Company landed there after a three-month voyage in the Margaret. Having been recruited from Gloucestershire to establish a colony in the New World, the men were under orders to give thanks when they arrived, so the first thing they did was to kneel down and do so.
The History of Thanksgiving in the United States
George Washington, leader of the revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War, proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga. The Continental Congress proclaimed annual December Thanksgivings from 1777 to 1783, except in 1782.
George Washington again proclaimed Thanksgivings, now as President, in 1789 and 1795. President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799, and President James Madison declared the holiday twice in 1815; however, none of these were celebrated in autumn.
It was President Abraham Lincoln that set the holiday as a regular yearly event for the final Thursday of November in 1863.
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be the penultimate Thursday of November rather than the last. This was to give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas; at the time it was considered inappropriate to advertise goods for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. However, Roosevelt’s declaration was not mandatory; some states went along with this recommendation and others did not. The United States Congress in 1941 split the difference and established that the holiday would occur annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes the next to last. On November 26 that year President Roosevelt signed this bill into US law.
Since 1970 some American Indians and others have held a National Day of Mourning protest on Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts.