The History of Thanksgiving, Explained

Thanksgiving has been a national holiday, held every November, since President Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863. As you no doubt learned early in your schooling, the actual history of Thanksgiving goes back even further. When and where exactly is somewhat in dispute, though.

The tradition of celebrating an occasion with a festival centered around food has ancient origins, dating all the way back to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, all of whom feasted to honor their gods annually after a fall harvest. The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot has also been called an early version of Thanksgiving. But in the U.S., at least, Native Americans have long gathered together with food and ceremony to commemorate the fall harvest—way before settlers showed up on their shores.

Pilgrim turkeys
This Thanksgiving will also mark its own place in history. Getty

What we know as the modern Thanksgiving holiday traces back to one of two events—one that occurred in 1619 in Virginia, and another in 1621 at Plymouth, in what we now call Massachusetts. And it's a fierce debate between the states as to which can rightfully call itself the birthplace of Thanksgiving.

The 1619 event took place at Charles City County, where 38 English settlers marked a religious celebration with orders by the group's charter from the London Company "that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned ... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

The 1621 Plymouth feast is the better-known of the two and generally accepted as the first Thanksgiving. It came after the Pilgrim colonists suffered a brutal first winter in their new country after the Mayflower landed in November 1620. During that winter, many remained onboard the ship, where they suffered from scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the passengers and crew survived to see spring.

When the remaining settlers ventured ashore, they were greeted by an Abenaki Native American, who greeted them in English. Days later, he returned with Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and eventually returning to his homeland. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, fish in the rivers and helped them forge an alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe.

Thanks to the tribe's help, the Pilgrims enjoyed a bountiful fall harvest in 1621, which they celebrated with a feast shared with their new neighbors. The goodwill was unfortunately not permanent, and the holiday isn't celebrated by many Wampanoag tribe members today, because of the diseases that settlers brought and how they forced tribes from their lands. In fact, since 1970, protesters have gathered on Thanksgiving at the top of Cole's Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a "National Day of Mourning." (Similar events are held throughout the country.)

The Continental Congress designated one or more days of Thanksgiving a year during the Revolutionary War, before George Washington in 1789 issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States. John Adams and James Madison followed suit by also designated days of thanks during their presidencies, though all came short of declaring a national holiday. Several states, however, officially adopted annual Thanksgiving holidays by the early 1800s.

The magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale is probably more responsible than anyone for making it a national holiday. In 1827, she began a 36-year-long campaign to designate Thanksgiving as an official holiday throughout the country until Lincoln named it as such during the Civil War. Hale earned the nickname the "Mother of Thanksgiving" for her efforts.

Lincoln scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated every year on that day until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week in an attempt to drive up retail sales during the Great Depression. His plan was met with great political opposition and, in 1941, he signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Parades became part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States over the years, with the most famous coming 1924 with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Turkey is the unofficial main dish of the day, at least among meat eaters.

That's a key departure from early Thanksgivings. While turkey, corn and assorted autumnal vegetables were on the menu, so was a great deal of seafood. (Remember, the first Thanksgiving took place near the ocean.) Historians believe the colonists and Wampanoag likely ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels on that first Thanksgiving in 1621. Turkey may have been served, but duck or goose could have been the main attraction, as well as smaller birds like passenger pigeons; only the latter would have been cooked directly over the fire, while larger birds were likely boiled first and then perhaps given a little roasting time afterwards.

Also, without ovens, those early Thanksgivings were spent without pumpkin pie. So, if for nothing else, be thankful for the options on your plate—even if it's not quite as fancy-sounding as lobster.