When Is Thanksgiving? 2021 Date, History and More

Thanksgiving is a holiday in the U.S. observed on the fourth Thursday in November every year. The day is usually marked by gatherings of families and friends who share a meal together.

As it is a federal holiday, most government offices are closed on the day, while some private businesses may also be shut.

When Is Thanksgiving in 2021?

Thanksgiving this year lands on November 25.

The History of Thanksgiving Day

In 1789, on November 26, former president George Washington issued a proclamation for "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer," declaring it an official holiday of "sincere and humble thanks," according to the U.S. National Archives.

Washington was prompted to make the proclamation after the first Federal Congress passed a resolution in September 1789 asking the president to recommend a day of thanksgiving to the country.

Starting in 1863, former president Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to observe the last Thursday of November as "a day of Thanksgiving," according to the History, Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives website.

Congress later passed legislation in 1870, which made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Apart from a few exceptions, most presidents followed Lincoln's example in declaring the last Thursday as a day of giving thanks.

But in 1939, former president Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving to the penultimate Thursday in November following pressure from the Retail Dry Goods Association.

Retailers were concerned the shorter Christmas shopping season could negatively impact sales, with Thanksgiving falling on November 30 in 1939.

Following Roosevelt's proclamation, 32 states made similar declarations, while 16 states refused to accept the change and opted to keep Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.

So for two years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different dates, either the penultimate or final Thursday in November.

To end the confusion, in 1941 Congress passed legislation that officially established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of every November, which was signed by Roosevelt in December 1941, according to the National Archives.

Thanksgiving Traditions and Origins

Many Thanksgiving traditions can be traced back to harvest festivals, when the cultures of both the Pilgrims who sailed from England in 1620 as well as the Native Americans they encountered showed gratitude for a bountiful harvest.

A three-day harvest celebration was held in 1621 in Plymouth Colony (which forms part of Massachusetts today) and is considered the first American Thanksgiving, the website of the U.S. Embassy in the U.K. explains.

According to the U.S. National Museum of the American Indian: "In looking at the first Thanksgiving feast from the point of view of its Native participants, it is possible to understand how integral the concept of giving thanks is to Native worldviews."

The Pilgrims arrived in 1620, but didn't bring enough food and it was too late in the year to plant crops, so half of the colony died during the winter of 1620 to 1621.

But in the spring, the local Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn and other crops as well as how to cook cranberries, corn and squash. The colonists were also taught how to master hunting and fishing.

Getting Together for a Feast

By the fall of 1621, there was a bountiful harvest and the colonists and Wampanoag Indians came together for a feast of wild turkeys, duck, geese, fish and shellfish, corn, green vegetables and dried fruits. Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and his tribe brought venison.

The first American Thanksgiving, however, was followed by a long period of injustice and conflict between Native Americans and Europeans, the embassy website notes, and many Native Americans view Thanksgiving as a "National Day of Mourning."

The National Museum of the American Indian explains: "Sharing agricultural knowledge was one aspect of early American Indian efforts to live side by side with Europeans. As relationships with the newcomers grew into competitions for land and resources, the groups were not always successful in their efforts to coexist.

"So, the first Thanksgiving was just the beginning of a long history of interactions between American Indians and immigrants...the meal that is ingrained in the American consciousness represents much more than a simple harvest celebration. It was a turning point in history," the museum says.

A Thanksgiving Day meal at a table.
An aerial shot of people at a table enjoying a Thanksgiving Day meal. iStock/Getty Images Plus