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What is the History of Thanksgiving?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 23, 2024
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Thanksgiving today in the United States and Canada consists of food, family, friends and giving thanks for one’s blessings. Although it is considered a secular holiday, both the religious and non-religious observe it as a day to count the things one has to be grateful for. The modern-day Thanksgiving that Americans and Canadians observe, with its traditional menu and activities, is worlds apart from the early feasts and ceremonies that were observed by the European colonists and explorers of North America.

Although most North Americans agree that the first Thanksgiving took place sometime between 21 September and 11 November 1621 at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, there are other earlier feasts and ceremonies that vie for the designation as the first true Thanksgiving. In Canada, the first took place in 1578, when English Explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated the establishment of a colony in what is now the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In what is now the United States, some believe that the first real Thanksgiving feast took place on 23 May 1541 in modern-day Texas. The feast was celebrated by explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and the Native Americans he called the Tejas. The feast took place to celebrate a discovery of additional supplies of food. Another celebration in the running is 8 September 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés feasted with Native Americans in what is now Florida. In Texas, on 30 April 1598, Don Juan de Oñate celebrated with the Manso Indians. No matter where or when it actually occurred, it seems clear that the history of Thanksgiving in North America is uniquely linked to the generosity of the continent's first nations to those who had recently arrived.

Although there were earlier feasts held by Europeans in North America, it is widely accepted that North Americans base their modern Thanksgiving on the 1621 feast in Plymouth. The feast, which lasted three days, was held to celebrate the autumn harvest. The pilgrims broke bread with the Wampanoag Indians, who contributed five deer to the feast. The best and most detailed account of the event is by Edward Winslow in his A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. It is through accounts such as this that the facts have been gleaned.

The menu on that first Thanksgiving was very different from that of a modern feast. It is known that only wild fowl and venison were served, along with a limited selection of vegetables. The vegetables available at the time were probably limited to pumpkins, beans, onions, peas and carrots. There were no sweets, pies or cakes, as the pilgrim’s sugar supply was extremely low. The dishes were most likely flavored with salt and a few spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger, in addition to wild herbs and dried fruits.

The meat, which was likely limited to the local deer population and indigenous wild fowl, such as wild turkey, duck and goose, was roasted on a spit for several hours. Meals were prepared using limited resources and served family style on large tables. Important people and guests were generally served the best food. The festivities included dancing and singing, and the event would not have been a primarily religious observance due to the frivolity associated with the feast.

Thanksgiving was not repeated the following year, but the pilgrims established a more religious tradition of praying and giving thanks after a successful harvest. The Continental Congress proposed an annual day of giving thanks during the American Revolution. In 1789, President George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until 1817 that the state of New York instituted an annual holiday, which other states soon followed with their own.

President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. It was his proclamation that has inspired every American president to issue his own proclamation ever since. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November, and Congress ratified the decision in 1941. Since then, it has evolved into the holiday that is observed today. When the gathered parties first observed the holiday nearly four centuries ago, they would not have been able to conceive of the packaged frozen turkeys, football games, parades and shopping that have become favorite traditional mainstays of many of those observing the modern holiday.

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Discussion Comments

By JackWhack — On Oct 18, 2012

We have come a long way since the first Thanksgiving in history. I don't think that is a good thing, though.

Thanksgiving used to be pretty laid back around my family's house, but in 2011, stores started a new tradition of opening up at midnight on Thanksgiving for Black Friday. This meant that instead of enjoying a night of peaceful slumber after a big meal, I had to get up from a nap at eleven and go with my family to the hell that is Black Friday shopping.

I miss the years when I could just get a good long rest after eating so much! It does not feel good to run and fight and stand in long lines for toys on such a full stomach!

By giddion — On Oct 18, 2012

I wonder what pumpkin with cinnamon and nutmeg but no sugar tasted like. It must have been really bitter!

This sounds like the origin of pumpkin pie. Once the sugar supply grew, somebody probably tasted pumpkin with just cinnamon and figured out exactly what it needed.

We may have the Pilgrims to thank for the eventual tradition of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. I love all things pumpkin, and I'm glad that it was a part of the original celebration.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 17, 2012

@Kristee – I don't know if I would call them proud. They were probably more thankful than boastful.

Even though the ritual may not have involved religious ceremonies, I do believe that they gave thanks to God for the abundance. So, instead of being all showy about having caught or raised the food themselves, they probably were humbly grateful to even have food, especially so much of it.

By Kristee — On Oct 16, 2012

I read an excerpt from a letter written back in 1621 in regards to the Thanksgiving feast. I specifically remember that it mentioned Indian corn.

I don't know whether or not this is the red and black kernel corn of today, but it was definitely corn. That's one item that my family always serves on the holiday. My dad butters it, wraps it in foil, and grills it, and it tastes just perfect.

We don't grow the corn ourselves, but I would imagine that doing so made the original guests proud that it turned out so well. They were probably also proud that they caught their own meat.

By SZapper — On Aug 29, 2012

@ceilingcat - I only remember learning about the Thanksgiving holiday celebration at Plymouth in school as well. I think this happens a lot with various historical events though. There's only so much time to cover each thing, so some of the details get glossed over.

Either way, I think Thanksgiving is a great holiday. It's one of the only holidays that isn't completely commercialized. Yes, you are supposed to buy food for dinner, but that's it. No frivolous cards or gifts are required, just the presence of friends and family!

By ceilingcat — On Aug 28, 2012

Wow, I had no idea there was any other "First Thanksgiving" than the one at Plymouth! It sounds like there are actually quite a few celebrations that could be considered the inspiration for the holiday, but when I took history in school, we only learned about the one at Plymouth!

By JessicaLynn — On Aug 28, 2012
@LoriCharlie - Thanksgiving is a pretty fun and likable holiday, it's true. However, my enjoyment is really tainted by the treatment of Native Americans here in the United States.

The history of Thanksgiving shows that a lot of Native American tribes welcomed the colonists from Europe, and even helped them and shared food with them. Then they were repaid for their hospitality with all kinds of atrocities. I've never been able to enjoy a Thanksgiving celebration in the same way since I learned about the history of Native Americans in the United States.

By LoriCharlie — On Aug 27, 2012

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, hands down. I love getting together with my family, reflecting on all the things I'm thankful for, and eating delicious food. Plus, when I was younger, I used to really enjoy having a week off of school for Thanksgiving.

By anon20291 — On Oct 28, 2008

how did the indians teach the pilgrims how to plant corn?

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