A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Posted by: Oksana Kluchko, Journalist/Embassy Community Member

"The First Thanksgiving" (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (American painter, 1863-1930)

Thanksgiving Day is a truly great American holiday. It commemorates a series of events which took place in the 17th Century. It was on December 11, 1620 that the Pilgrims set ground on Plymouth Rock. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast — including 91 Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. The feast was celebrated as a traditional English harvest festival that lasted three days.

Their supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop. There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There were no domestic cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. But the feast did include turkey, fish, berries, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.

Again in 1623, during a severe drought, the Pilgrims gathered in prayer for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their Native American Indian friends. October of 1777 marked the first time all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair. George Washington also proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, despite the fact that some opposed it.

It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies’ Magazine, and later, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale’s obsession became a reality when, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every President after Lincoln. The date was changed a few times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

One thought on “A Brief History of Thanksgiving

  1. Thanks for sharing the history of thanksgiving. Most stories of Thanksgiving day start with the harvest celebration of the pilgrims and the Native Americans that took place in the autumn of 1621. The first thanksgiving held in 1621 with the pilgrims and Indians. The tradition of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth and legend.

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