Most people residing in the United States have at least a general idea of why we celebrate Thanksgiving. The story of the first Thanksgiving is played out in school auditoriums all over the country every single year. We celebrate Thanksgiving in part to show our thanks for everything that we have, but also as a tribute to the pilgrims who came here from Europe. The history of Thanksgiving in the United States begins with the pilgrims who came over from England and landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1621.
The pilgrims shared a feast in the fall time, probably October, of that year with the Wampanoag Indians. Although this was technically the first Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving would not become an annual event until many years later and would not become a federal holiday until 1941. In addition, many of the traditions like turkey and pie that we associate with Thanksgiving did not occur at the first Thanksgiving, instead evolving over many years.
It took a very long time for Thanksgiving to become an annual event, for it to have a universally accepted date, and for it to be celebrated as a federal holiday. Various Thanksgiving-type celebrations were held irregularly during the fall months for nearly 150 years before it was suggested by the Continental Congress that the country should have a national day of Thanks. Some historians suggest that this was a political move as much as anything. The emerging country was in need of its own traditions and customs to help create a separate non-English, American identity. Thanksgiving was perfect because it was a way to honor the pilgrims, the people who originally left England to be free of persecution.
The celebration, at the time, had a very obvious patriotic and anti-English subtext. For whatever reason they suggested it, people began celebrating Thanksgiving Day more regularly. However, depending on where you were, the day of the celebration might be different. In 1817, New York was the first state to adopt Thanksgiving as an official holiday. By the time the Civil War erupted in the 1860’s, every state had also made Thanksgiving a state holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Since that time, every president has issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation every Thanksgiving, declaring it to be a national day of thanks. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the Thanksgiving would be on the third Thursday in November. Congress approved that declaration two year later in 1941.
By the time the Civil War erupted in the 1860’s, every state had also made Thanksgiving a state holiday.
It took a long time for Thanksgiving to become a regular tradition in the United States. It also took some time for the traditions that many Americans partake in on that holiday to take shape. It is no secret that most Thanksgiving Day traditions revolve around food. Indeed, the turkey is the symbol of Thanksgiving. Wild turkeys are still quite common in many parts of the United States, so most historians would concede that turkey was probably on the menu. However, there were probably lots of other types of meat on the menu too, like venison and pork. What is more telling is what was missing from that first Thanksgiving. There were probably very few if any vegetables at the Thanksgiving feast. Today we have mashed potatoes, yams, squashes and other veggies, but neither the pilgrims nor the Indians had any way to keep vegetables fresh that far into fall. Another major difference is the lack of desserts at the first Thanksgiving. Today, dessert is a major part of the Thanksgiving meal. However by autumn of 1621, the pilgrims were running low on sugar and probably didn’t make any pumpkin pie or peach cobbler. Like the date, different foods became part of the Thanksgiving traditions over many years.