Thanksgiving Day in America

In America, Thanksgiving has traditionally been a celebration of the blessings of the year, including the harvest. The first American Thanksgiving was celebrated by the early settlers of the Plymouth Plantation, an English colonial venture in North America in present-day Plymouth from 1620 to 1691 after their first harvest in 1621.

Plymouth Colony 1620-1691
Plymouth Colony 1620-1691

In Britain, the Harvest Festival, a carryover from paganism, was traditionally held on the Sunday near or of the Harvest Moon during successful harvests, based on the pagan Feast of the Ingathering festival of Mabon. This was during the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23rd). Mabon is the second of the three Pagan harvest festivals, preceded by Lammas (August 1st) and followed by Samhain (October 31 – November 1st).

Samhain (pronounced /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/ SOW-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated October 31st – November 1st in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year.

Celtic Year Wheel
Celtic Year Wheel

The Harvest Festival was associated with fruit and vegetables that are gathered yearly to provide food to last people throughout the winter, for which they gave thanks. The Harvest Festival is held to celebrate that the hard work of the harvest is over for another year. It was celebrated by many people especially across churches throughout the rural countryside of Britain, where the people were more closely tied to the land. The celebrations to celebrate the end of the harvest on this day include singing hymns, decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food, a feast held at the farmer’s home and a gathering of singing, drinking, and game playing.

The early English settlers took the idea of the Harvest Festival to North America in 1621 with the Plymouth feast of thanksgiving that was prompted by a good harvest. The first Thanksgiving celebration was held in early October and was attended by approximately 103 people: 53 surviving Colonial Pilgrims and 50 Native Americans from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe including Massasoit and Squanto, who acted as the translator between the two groups. The Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days and featured a feast that included numerous types of waterfowl, roasted turkey, duck, goose, fish, lobster, and five deer brought by the Native Americans. Also included in the feast were dried fruit, squash, pumpkin, cranberry sauce, dried Indian maize (corn), and a wheat pudding.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925)
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925)

Edward Winslow (October 18, 1595 – May 8, 1655), who traveled on the Mayflower in 1620, was among the group of Pilgrims present at the first Thanksgiving. He describes the scene:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.

“At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and 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, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

First Thanksgiving Oct 1, 1621
First Thanksgiving Celebration in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts

The Thanksgiving celebration event of 1621 was not an annual tradition with the Colonial Pilgrims. After the first Thanksgiving feast, there is no evidence that it was celebrated again within the decade. However, after the establishment of the United States as a Constitutional Republic, President George Washington on October 3, 1789, enclosed the Thanksgiving Proclamation in his Circular to the Governors of the States, stating:

I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner that shall be most agreeable to yourself.

George Washington Thanksgiving Proclumation

Following Congress’ recommendation, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day of public thanksgiving, stating, “to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…”

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1789

Abraham Lincoln 1863
Abraham Lincoln 1863

Since 1789, Thanksgiving has been celebrated on and off as a holiday celebration in various states throughout America. However, in 1863, during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), President Abraham Lincoln by presidential proclamation made Thanksgiving a federal holiday in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states stating,

“Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.


President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be regularly commemorated as Thanksgiving Day. His Thanksgiving holiday proclamation implored the nation to heal its wounds and restore peace, harmony, tranquility to the nation.

Thanksgiving as a Federal Holiday 1863
Thanksgiving to be Celebrated as a Federal Holiday

However, because of the ongoing Civil War and the Confederate States of America’s refusal to recognize Lincoln’s authority, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not fully realized until Reconstruction was completed in the early 1870s.

Thanksgiving in America in the 20th Century

On November 26, 1902, after a vigorous morning horseback ride out into northwest Washington, D.C., with First Lady Edith Roosevelt and a party of six friends, President Theodore Roosevelt spent a quiet afternoon at the White House before a 7:30 PM Thanksgiving dinner in the State Dining Room. On hearing that workmen building the new west wing annex could not take off the holiday because of their tight work schedule, the president insisted that the men be served an early afternoon turkey dinner.

"Poultry King" Horace Vose supplied the White House with Holiday Turkeys from 1873 until his death in 1913.
“Poultry King” Horace Vose supplied the White House with Holiday Turkeys from 1873 until his death in 1913.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1924
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1924

During the 1920s – a period of dramatic economic expansion and social experimentation in America – many of Macy’s department store employees, who were first-generation European immigrants who quickly reached middle-class status and were proud of their new American heritage, sought to celebrate the American holiday season of Thanksgiving with the type of Harvest Festival celebrations their parents had loved in Europe. The modern American tradition of Thanksgiving started in 1924 at 9:00 AM in Manhattan, New York. With an audience of over 250,000 people, the parade was such a success that Macy’s declared it would become an annual national event.

Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 20, 1924

President Calvin Coolidge

On November 23, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge delivered his Thanksgiving proclamation over the radio at 8:15 PM to a network of stations across the country before an evening musical program that culminated with Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

President Calvin Coolidge Thanksgiving Proclamation over National Radio
President Calvin Coolidge Thanksgiving Proclamation over National Radio

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 26, 1941, signed (H.J. Res 41) a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the 3rd Thursday, reasoning that the earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost as a lead into the Christmas Holiday.

Truman Thanksgiving

President Harry Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and National Turkey Federation. Another turkey presentation to President Truman took place on December 23, 1947. This 35-pound dressed champion turkey and was a gift from Oregon Senator Wayne Morse. Although Truman did not start the turkey pardon tradition, his administration made turkey presentations a presidential media event that continues to today.

Kennedy Last Thanksgiving

A majestic 55-pound white turkey with a sign around its neck reading “Good Eating, Mr. President!” received a reprieve from President John F. Kennedy in the company of Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen for the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. “We’ll just let this one grow,” said the president, asking that the bird be returned to its California breeding farm. White House press secretary Pierre Salinger announced that the Kennedys would spend their Thanksgiving holiday at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a tradition for the Kennedy clan; tragically, it was a journey that was never undertaken.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

President John F. Kennedy
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, 1963

2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Day in America”

  1. Genevieve Vierling

    I always appreciate your thorough, and well illustrated write ups on our history William. Thank you!! And a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. 🙂

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