The History of Thanksgiving: Here's How the American Tradition Began

The Google Doodle for today, November 25, celebrates Thanksgiving—the annual holiday observed on the fourth Thursday of every November.

The animated graphic features some of the typical ingredients for a Thanksgiving feast—potato, yam, pumpkin pie, corn and cranberry—all "marching to the beat."

The beloved holiday usually entails families and friends gathering for a meal and other social activities.

But how and when did this time-honored American tradition begin? Newsweek explains.

The Origins of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving traditions can be traced back to harvest festivals, when the Pilgrims from England and the Native Americans they encountered gave thanks for a bountiful harvest.

A three-day harvest celebration held in Plymouth Colony (which today forms part of Massachusetts) back in 1621 is considered the first American Thanksgiving.

The U.S. National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) explains: "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 world views."

The Pilgrims first arrived in Plymouth in 1620 but they hadn't brought enough food. Half of the colony died during the winter from 1620 to 1621, as it was too late in the year to plant crops.

In the spring of 1621, the colonists were taught how to grow corn and other vegetables by the local Wampanoag Indians, who also showed the Pilgrims how to cook corn as well as cranberries and squash. They were also taught how to master hunting and fishing.

The NMAI explains: "When the English decided to establish a colony there in the 1600s, the Wampanoag already had a deep understanding of their environment. They maintained a reciprocal relationship with the world around them.

"As successful hunters, farmers, and fishermen who shared their foods and techniques, they helped the colonists survive in a strange new place," the museum says.

Aerial view of Thanksgiving meal.
An aerial view of people sharing a Thanksgiving meal at a table. A harvest celebration held in Plymouth Colony back in 1621 is considered the first American Thanksgiving. iStock/Getty Images Plus

The First American Thanksgiving

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims and local Wampanoag Indians gathered for a feast of wild turkeys, duck, geese, fish and shellfish, corn, green vegetables and dried fruits to celebrate the season's abundant harvest. Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and his tribe brought venison.

The NMAI says: "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 first Thanksgiving was followed by an extended period of injustice and conflict between Native Americans and Europeans. Many Native Americans see Thanksgiving as a "National Day of Mourning," the U.S. embassy website says.

The museum 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."

J.L.M. Ferris painting depicting the first Thanksgiving.
A painting by J.L.M. Ferris depicting the first Thanksgiving celebrated by Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621. Bettmann via Getty Images

How Did Thanksgiving Become a Holiday?

Back in September 1789, the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking former president George Washington to recommend a day of thanksgiving to the country.

This prompted Washington to issue a proclamation in October 1789, declaring November 26 as an official holiday of "sincere and humble thanks," according to the U.S. National Archives.

Later in 1863, former president Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to mark the last Thursday of November as "a day of Thanksgiving." In 1870, Congress passed legislation that made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

At the time, the president had the authority to set the official date of Thanksgiving, unlike other national holidays, such as Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Independence Day.

Most presidents followed Lincoln's lead in declaring the last Thursday of November as a day of giving thanks, apart from a few exceptions, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Following pressure from the Retail Dry Goods Association, in 1939 Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving to the penultimate Thursday in November.

That year, retailers were concerned about the potential negative impact on sales due to a shorter Christmas shopping period, since Thanksgiving landed on November 30 in 1939.

Dozens of states made declarations similar to Roosevelt's Thanksgiving date proclamation, while others opted to keep the holiday as the last Thursday in November.

After two years of different states observing Thanksgiving on one of two dates (either the penultimate or final Thursday in November), in 1941 Congress passed legislation that officially established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of every November.

A basket with pumpkins, squash and corn.
A basket with pumpkins, squash and corn surrounded by autumn leaves. Thanksgiving traditions can be traced back to harvest celebrations. iStock/Getty Images Plus