The (Unofficial) History of Thanksgiving

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
For many people across the United States, Thanksgiving is a day to gather with family and dine on an elaborate feast. Those who grew up attending school in the United States are taught the reason the country celebrates Thanksgiving is due to the Pilgrim’s hosting their “First Thanksgiving” after their first successful harvest in the New World in 1621. According to records preserved from the time, the feast lasted three days and was attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. It was a time of thanks and prayer for the good fortunes the colony had experienced that harvest season. However, historians today note that this is only part of the story. For example, did you know that Thanksgiving wasn’t declared a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln was president? This is the unofficial history of Thanksgiving. 
 
The First Thanksgiving
 
In 1621, the historic feast between the English Colonists of Plymouth, known as Pilgrims, and the Wampanoag people marked the first of today’s Thanksgiving celebration. The common image of the gathering reveals a long table covered in turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie and surrounded by a mix of Native Americans and Pilgrims. As the story goes, the feast was originally held only for the Pilgrims, but when nearly 100 Wampanoag tribe members arrived by surprise, they were not turned away. The Wampanoag likely made some contributions of their own to the celebration like venison, fish, shellfish, stews, beer, and vegetables. People ate from their plates on the ground or sitting on top of barrels, there were running races, the firing of guns, and conversation between Colonists and Native Americans in broken English. 
 
The celebration of “thanksgivings” was not uncommon for colonists. These kinds of celebrations, albeit not as extravagant as the one that happened in 1621, took place with some regularity and consisted of days of prayers and thanking God. The celebration that happened in 1621 is remembered because of the joining of Native Americans and colonists that helped secure their relationship. 
 
The Secret History of Thanksgiving
 
In 1798, the United States Continental Congress declared a national Thanksgiving. However, how this holiday was celebrated was left to the states. Some Americans were offended by being told when and want to celebrate while others, particularly in the South, took their time adopting New England’s custom. During these early years, the holiday did more to divide the country than unite it. Thanksgiving was not declared an official holiday until the mid-1800s during the Civil War while Abraham Lincoln was president. Spurred on by the campaign to nationalize the holiday by the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book by Sarah Josepha Hale, Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be Thursday, November 26. 
 
From there forward, the holiday was celebrated annually on the last Thursday in November. In an attempt to boost the holiday shopping season, which normally began just after Thanksgiving, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date back one week, making Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of every November. Not all states obeyed this, resulting in sporadic celebrations of the holiday. After a joint resolution in Congress in 1941, Roosevelt proclaimed in 1942 the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. 
 
Thanksgiving as it’s Known Today
 
In the years since it was declared a national holiday, Thanksgiving has become a time for family members to gather. Thanksgiving Day football games became part of the tradition in 1876 with the first game played between Yale and Princeton. In 1920, the Gimbels department store hosted the first parade on Thanksgiving Day with Santa Claus bringing up the rear. Four years later, Macy’s continued the tradition in hosting the massive Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City with huge balloons, performances, and the iconic Santa Claus in the end. Many churches hold a special service on Thanksgiving Day and it is a tradition for the President of the United States to pardon a live turkey to spend the rest of its life on a farm without the possibility of being eaten.
 
After this day of gratitude, many Americans participate in Black Friday, marking the official start of the holiday shopping season. Stores open at exceptionally early hours, shoppers rising with them, to take advantage of the major deals being offered by companies. 
 
The story of the Pilgrims is just the beginning when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving. While we might not learn the full story in traditional schooling, the uniting of family members to give thanks and enjoy a bountiful feast is an unmistakable American tradition.