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.