As the true national American holiday, Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1789. That year, on October 3, George Washington proclaimed the start of celebrating this holiday. While Thomas Jefferson was a president, the celebration of this holiday was suspended. However, in 1863 Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a federal holiday during the American Civil War. Since Roosevelt established the exact day of celebration, it has been organized every year on the last Thursday of November. Today, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year are celebrated within the ‘fall/winter holiday season’ in the United States.
History of Thanksgiving in America is as fascinating as intriguing and controversial. There are actually two versions of the event we usually connect with first Thanksgiving. One is official, and every child in the US has taught about it at school. The other, more likely version, has been covered up and ignored for a long time. Today the truth is available to anyone who believes that it is the most precious value for humans. Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter what the primary reason to start celebrating this day is. The fact is that Thanksgiving is the most patriotic of all holidays that are marked in the US nowadays, and it definitely has a special place in the heart of every American.
Table of Contents
The Truth about Thanksgiving Turkey
Today, we have only two testimonies of what happened during a harvest celebration in 1621 which is considered as the very first Thanksgiving ever. Edward Winslow, one of the eyewitnesses, wrote a letter for someone in England and described the celebration in detail but he didn’t mention turkey at all.
Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, was the other eyewitness. He literally wrote: ‘And besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.’ These words give us an idea about their menu but don’t indicate that the turkey was on the table that day at all. Anyway, governor certainly didn’t mention a single word that this particular bird was the main dish.
Many other chroniclers of that first Thanksgiving Day referred about dishes on the festive table including venison, fish, lobster, and ‘fowls’, but it’s much more likely that it was about goose and duck. Also, there was undoubtedly no pie on the menu, but they had plenty of pumpkins and various root vegetables as well. Unlike us, they were celebrating for three days, and they probably didn’t have the centerpiece of the meal at all.
An American writer Sarah Josepha Hale was really responsible for spreading the idea of turkey as the main dish of the Thanksgiving table. In the early 19th century, she agitated for this day to become an official American holiday. Her writing that turkey was a popular dish for the big feast significantly shaped the attitude of people towards a menu for the new holiday.
In fact, she dedicated an entire chapter of her book ‘Northwood; a Tale of New England’ towards eating tasty turkey on Thanksgiving. Her compelling description was undoubtedly affected people to start accepting the turkey as the central and inevitable symbol of Thanksgiving.
Even though the idea of celebrating the harvest was popular in some parts of the new country, it was far from being a national holiday. From time to time, presidents would declare a Thanksgiving celebration, but the holiday wasn’t recognized nationwide for a long time.
However, almost all early gatherings included turkey. Even Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, once mentioned that ‘No citizen of the US shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day‘.
One of the main reasons why a turkey has gained the status it has to this day was finding Pilgrim William Bradford’s journals which had been lost for a century. After these old writings of the long-time leader of the Plymouth Colony were reprinted in 1856, the initiative that Thanksgiving should become a national feast day got a lot of supporters.
Since Bradford described that the colonists had hunted wild turkeys in 1621, this widespread American bird became the Thanksgiving meal of choice especially after Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.
History of Thanksgiving
Although there are so many stories about that first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth in 1621, almost no reliable official data are available. The only reference gave Edward Winslow. Among other things, he wrote:
‘And God be praised we had a good increase– Our harvest being gotten in– 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–‘
(Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books, Cambridge, 1986. p 82)
Whether this was the first time to celebrate this day? Actually, to this day, nobody could say with certainty who actually celebrated that first ‘Thanksgiving’ in the New World.
It is known that on September 8, 1565, a group of Spaniards, headed by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé, organized a celebration in Saint Augustine, Florida. Although it was claimed that he invited the Timucua tribe to be a part of this dinner, it was indeed unlikely. Anyway, this dinner was some kind of predate the Pilgrims’ autumn of 1621 date.
The other ‘predate the Pilgrims’ dinner’ was organized in San Elizario, Texas in 1598. That autumn, Spaniard Juan de Onate and his people held a festival near the Rio Grande after successfully crossed Mexican desert.
However, one particular day in the autumn of 1621 is considered as the historical beginning of the celebration of Thanksgiving in the US. According to attendee Edward Winslow, 53 surviving Mayflower passengers (Pilgrims and Puritans) and 90 Indians from the Wampanoag tribe spent three days celebrating the harvest in Plymouth, which laid the foundation for one of the most beloved American holidays.
On the other hand, if there were a possibility to ask the Pilgrims, they would probably tell us that they considered their sober (day of prayer) in 1623 as the first Thanksgiving. That year they celebrated the end of a long drought. After that moment, they fasted harvest on a regular basis.
Additionally, there was one more birthday of Thanksgiving. It could be a day in 1637 when John Winthrop, Massachusetts colony governor, declared a thanks-giving celebration in honor of colonial soldiers who had slaughtered 700 Pequot people in Connecticut and destroyed them as a tribe.
Well, let’s see what the official history said about the day which was the real reason for starting to celebrate Thanksgiving according to our beliefs.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth
In September 1620, a group of 102 religious separatists (the Pilgrims) came to the Promised Land by ship ‘Mayflower’, leaving behind Plymouth, England, their old homeland. After 66 days of crossing the ocean, they landed north of the mouth of the Hudson River, their previously planned destination.
One month later, after crossing Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims decided to establish a village at Plymouth. Their first winter in America was brutal, and only half of them survived outbreaks of contagious diseases and the horror of scurvy.
During their first New England spring, an Abenaki Indian visited the settlers. Several days later, he came again. This time, he was in the company of Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who spoke English fluently. He taught the Pilgrims how to extract sap from a maple tree, cultivate corn, go fishing, and recognize poisonous plants.
He also mediated in a rapprochement between settlers and Wampanoag, members of a local tribe. Unfortunately, their friendship, which lasted over fifty years, was remembered as a sole example of harmony between Native Americans and European colonists.
Anyway, in November 1621, Governor William Bradford decided to organize a feast in honor of the first successful corn harvest in the new homeland. Colonists invited a group of Indians, including Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, to join them. That festival, known as American’s ‘first Thanksgiving’, lasted three days. Many meals were likely prepared using traditional cooking methods of Native Americans. Because the Pilgrims had no more sugar, there were no desserts on their festive table.
From a historical point of view, a real interest in that dinner, which Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had shared, started on the eve of the American Revolution. However, that meal wasn’t especially identified with Thanksgiving until about 1900.
By the end of the 19th century, musicians, painters, and novelists concentrated on the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and their friendship with Indians. In that period, children learned on their case about American freedom and sang songs about Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Has Become a National Holiday
In 1777, the Continental Congress gave ‘The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving’ during the American Revolutionary War.
In honor of independence, President George Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789, as a national day of thanks and prayer. That way, the federal government of the US made the first proclamation of Thanksgiving in history. The President asked Americans to express their gratitude for the end of the war and to celebrate in honor of the triumphant ratification of the US Constitution.
In 1798 and 1799, President John Adams declared the Thanksgiving Days, and President James Madison renewed the tradition in 1814. However, by 1815, Thanksgiving was just an individual holiday which celebrated just in some states.
Until the mid 19th century, most states and territories began to celebrate that holiday. President Abraham Lincoln believed that a national holiday might unite a war-torn country and declared two national Thanksgivings Days in 1863.
For a long time, Thanksgiving wasn’t a fixed annual event. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President who established the fourth Thursday in November as a national celebration and Congress confirmed that date in 1941. Thanksgiving Day finally got its day.
True History of Thanksgiving
I genuinely believe that Native Americans had a different view of this famous, idyllic dinner which the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared in 1621. In reality, this ‘perfect’ description of the event masks the ugly, bloody history of conflict between new-arrived European settlers and Native Americans. The result was the death of millions, primarily Indians, whose culture and lifestyle irreversibly disappeared as a result of massacres and terrible contagious diseases.
I couldn’t even imagine what the Wampanoag must have thought when the first Pilgrims’ ship arrived on the shore of their homeland. However, by their tradition, they treated these early settlers with respect and courtesy. The fact was that the first year in Promised Land the Pilgrims survived thanks to this Indian attitude exclusively.
Don’t forget that these Pilgrims and Puritans were not kind, innocent refugees who decided to come to a new continent without a valid reason. Mostly, they were political or religious exiles and fugitives who didn’t fit into the previous society. Sometimes, they made severe problems in their homelands and needed to escape of justice.
The truth was that chief of the Wampanoag was a crucial ally to the settlers who helped to set up an exclusive trade deal between the Pilgrims and local tribes. Unfortunately, the alliance didn’t take long runs. The arrival of more and more colonists, throughout the 17th century, changed the attitude of authorities in Plymouth towards the Indians. They believed that their duty and God’s mission was to take control over most aspects of the life of these ‘savages’.
While newly arrived settlers were taking more and more land from 1616 to 1619, the contagious diseases reduced the Native American population in New England for 90% at the same time. Non-resistant to the diseases that the newcomers brought from the Old World, natives continued to die from so-called ‘Indian fever’.
Then aggression began.
Since a lot of people came to America, indigenous people’s assistance wasn’t crucial to their survival anymore. It was so easy for the Pilgrims to convince themselves that the Indians were just a ‘God’s instrument’ that enabled them to survive. It was even easier to conclude that they actually owe nothing to them. Plus, the Pilgrims were entirely intolerant toward the Indian religion.
After several Wampanoag people were executed, Indian warriors responded with a series of attacks. For its part, the New England Confederation of Colonies decided to declare war in 1675. The result of that devastating and extremely bloody war was the death of 30% of the English population and more than 50% of Indians in New England. The Wampanoag tribe was forced to leave their villages forever.
There was one more ugly fact. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday and ordered the army to attack the starving Sioux in Minnesota on the same day. Don’t like it? Me neither.
The Dark Side of the First Thanksgiving Celebration
The memory of a harvest celebration, which we consider as the first Thanksgiving, and kindness and hospitality of the Pilgrims are mostly romanticized and idealized thanks to Hollywood movies. The truth is much different. The Pilgrims actually invited the Wampanoag to the feast to take advantage of this moment for negotiations. They wanted natives to give them a treaty. In that way, the plantations in Plymouth would become the property of the Pilgrims.
In reality, the leader of the Pilgrims invited Squanto and the leader of the Wampanoag as well as their families to a celebration. The problem came up when settlers realized that Indian families were more significant than they could have imagined.
As the feast began, the Pilgrims were not prepared for ninety people who came as guests. Seeing this, Wampanoag went home and brought more food including wild turkeys, five deer, fish, beans, corn bread, corn soup, berries, and squash. Now, having an insight into this, who was the host during these three days of the first celebration of Thanksgiving in your opinion?
At the top of Cole’s Hill, protesters have gathered on the Thanksgiving Day since 1970. They commemorated a ‘National Day of Mourning’ from the place where they had a direct view of Plymouth Rock. For years, people have been organizing similar events in many other parts of the US in memory of the unjust destiny of Native Americans and the power of the ungrateful Pilgrims.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade History
New York was the first state which officially started to celebrate Thanksgiving as an annual event in 1817. A century later, in 1922, the owner of Macy’s, New York City’s widely known department store, decided to mark the opening of a new 1-million square feet store in an original way.
He organized a parade which started at 9 am, in the morning on Thanksgiving. On November 27, 1924, after church services, 250,000 children and their parents, led by a police escort, took part in the 6-mile length parade which started from the crossroads of Convent Avenue and 145th Street.
Wild animals from the Central Park Zoo and four bands, playing the festive march, made a circus-like atmosphere. Dressed as cowboys, clowns, and knights, Macy’s employees contributed to the parade being something unheard until then. At the end of the parade route, Santa Claus, as a guest of honor, waited for 10,000 cheerful people. Since then, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has grown into a fantastic fiesta with more than 3.5 million participants and more than 50 million TV viewers.
In 1927 balloons replaced the live animals. After Sarg designed a helium-filled balloon ‘Felix the Cat’, balloons rapidly became the signature attractions of the parade. The next year, the giant balloon filled with helium was released into the sky at the end of the parade. During the years, over a hundred worldwide most beloved animated characters have got their own balloons. The most popular balloon is definitely the one with Snoopy.
Despite the Great Depression, the parade was organized every year during the 30s. Ten years later, one million people took part in the ceremony. In the early 40s, Disney added a Mickey Mouse balloon among other characters.
The parade was suspended During World War II because the army needed both rubber and helium. After the war, two million people attended the parade in 1945. They were marching through the streets of New York, and this route wasn’t changed until 2008.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was organized even in 1963, just six days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The intention was using the parade to raise the spirit of all Americans.
Although the world’s largest parade is a trademark of Thanksgiving Day, Santa Claus arrival in Herald Square is an unavoidable sensation. For all these years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade has marked the beginning of the holiday season in the United States.
Come to NYC and become a part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It is an experience you will remember for a lifetime.
American Thanksgiving Tradition
Charity – In many communities, it is a tradition to collect foods for the less fortunate.
Prayers – The essence of Thanksgiving is to show appreciation for all the good that people have received from the Lord during the previous year.
Thankfulness – During the Thanksgiving meal, family members share what they are most thankful that particular year.
Making a wish – The family member, who breaks off the more significant piece of the wishbone, have a right to get a special wish granted.
Kids crafts – Kids nationwide make festive crafts such as Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, and paper turkeys to honor the Thanksgiving.
Holiday shopping – Traditionally, Thanksgiving is recognized nationwide as the shopping day. Every shop organizes special offers for the customers to sale as many goods as possible.
Football – Most Americans spend Thanksgiving Day at home. After a festive dinner, they watch football on TV or play it with their children, friends, and neighbors. All of them remember the first intercollegiate football championship held on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. Nowadays, the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys are traditionally the hosts of the first two football games on Thanksgiving Day.
Around 5 billion pounds of pumpkins and over 700 million pounds of cranberries are produced each year in the US. Every household spends approximately $50 on Thanksgiving dinner. American families eat nearly 46 million turkeys, the average weight of 16 pounds and prefer pumpkins average weight between 8 and 16 pounds. Americans spend more than $14 billion on Thanksgiving and Black Friday each year.
Although the holiday has lost much of its original purpose, it is still a day when we recall all the blessings we have received during the year. In most American homes, it is a day for a family gathering. Americans prepare turkey, cook many delicious meals and make pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. This day they reserve for the family and friends or spend time watching football and hosting free dinners for the less fortunate. New Yorker and their guests take place in the parade on the city’s streets.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!