Thanksgiving 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

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).

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 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, 1914,

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.”

The Thanksgiving event of 1621 was not an annual tradition with the Colonial Pilgrims. After the first feast, there is no evidence that it was celebrated again within the next ten years. 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.”

Washington declared that on November 26, 1789 “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….”

First Thanksgiving Horoscope, November 26, 1789
First Thanksgiving Horoscope, November 26, 1789

Since that date, 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.


Thanksgiving Federal Holiday Chart, November 26, 1863
Thanksgiving Federal Holiday Chart, November 26, 1863


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.

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 a.m. 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 Chart, November 20, 1924
Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade Chart, November 20, 1924

During World War II,  President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 26, 1941, signed 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.

Aside from America, the nations of Liberia and Canada, the Australian territory of Norfolk Island and the unincorporated American territory of Puerto Rico are known to celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday every year. Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving in October, Liberia commemorates this occasion in early November, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico celebrates at the same time as the continental United States.


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