As people race to organize the last details on travel, get-togethers, and gather last-minute ingredients, the nation again marks the fourth Thursday in November as a day to pause and consider what really matters in life. For a day, a busy nation tries to pause for a moment to consider all the good things and be grateful for them. Thanksgiving is a holiday that dates back generations.
Perhaps the most notable Thanksgiving feast was that of the Pilgrims at the Plymouth Colony on Nov. 22, 1621. It had been a difficult year for the English settlers who had arrived in Massachusetts the previous November. The Wampanoag tribe, which controlled most of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, made offers of friendship to the Pilgrims, sharing their food as the colonists struggled through the winter and then taught them about raising crops in the area.
The Pilgrims were a religious community who had traveled together to the area. After a bountiful harvest, they decided to organize a feast to give thanks to God for their good fortune. In the spirit of gratitude, the Wampanoags were invited to join them in what became a three-day feast. The meal was quite different than the usual fare seen on American tables today. Using what was available locally, they ate swans, seals, deer, fish and lobsters.
Such celebrations to give thanks to God were not unusual among Europeans in general during that time period. By the time of the famous 1621 Thanksgiving at the Plymouth Colony, other feasts to give thanks had occurred already in other parts of the nation.
In 1565, Spanish conquistadores led by Pedro Menendez de Avile at the settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, held a special Roman Catholic mass and later a feast to give thanks to God for their safe arrival. They invited members of the local Timucua tribe to join them. In 1598, more than 500 Spanish colonists led by Don Juan de Onate arrived at San Elizario, near modern-day El Paso, and had a special day to give thanks for their own good fortune.
On Dec. 4, 1619, English settlers arriving in eastern Virginia at Berkeley Hundred had a feast to give thanks to God for their safe passage. However, regular Thanksgiving observances did not continue in these areas. Though each community claims to be the site of the first Thanksgiving, the modern holiday stems from the tradition that began at Plymouth.
The colonists and the tribes did not repeat the occasion in 1622. In 1623, after a difficult year of droughts that threatened the crops, late rains rescued the harvest. As it proved to be much more bountiful than expected, the colonists again had a celebration to give thanks that November.
Tragically, relations with the Wampanoag tribe deteriorated in the ensuing decades with the initial gestures of friendship forgotten and the tribe shattered by war. Nevertheless, New England residents would continue to have periodic Thanksgiving observances in the years afterward, often organized by the local churches.
In spite of a few instances of Thanksgiving observances in the South, it did not catch on as an annual observance as it did in New England. The tradition, however, spread northward into the British colonies in Canada, where observances remained mostly local until the late 1800s.
It was established as a national holiday in Canada only in the 1950s, and because of Canada’s much shorter growing season, on the second Monday in October.
New York became the first state to declare Thanksgiving a holiday, starting in 1817. Efforts were made to make it a national holiday in the 1820s, led by noted writer and educator Sarah Josepha Hale of New Hampshire. Up until the Civil War, the date of Thanksgiving was left to the states and made more of a local observance.
Dates for Thanksgiving ranged from early October through the end of December. In 1863, Secretary of State William H. Seward convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make it a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.
Lincoln announced the holiday as a day to give thanks to God for the blessings the nation had and added that all Americans should remember the widows and orphans the war created. In 1941, the holiday officially became the fourth Thursday in November from that point onward.
Today, the day before Thanksgiving is generally the busiest travel day of the year as family and friends prepare to gather once again. Turkey sales have topped $1 billion annually in the past few years.
The average Thanksgiving meal is about 5,000 calories. Communities across the nation hold parades to celebrate the day. Many churches and communities still continue the initial spirit of Thanksgiving by reaching out to the poor and homeless with food drives and community Thanksgiving meals prepared and served by volunteers.
Aside from the mad rush to Christmas shopping sprees in the modern age, the tradition of taking time to treasure loved ones and give thanks for all that which people value in their lives still means the most to millions of people.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a
historian, writer and native Texan. He is the author of several books, and his
columns appear in dozens
of newspapers. Bridges
can be contacted at