Each year on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans gather for a day of feasting, football and family. While today’s Thanksgiving celebrations would likely be unrecognizable to attendees of the original 1621 harvest meal, it continues to be a day for Americans to come together around the table—albeit with some updates to pilgrim’s menu.
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Several other places around the world observe similar celebrations. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and on the second Monday of October in Canada. Thanksgiving has its historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, and has long been celebrated in a secular manner as well.
Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday's history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.
In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day.
In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, but not universally, traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the "First Thanksgiving", including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. In later years, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned a thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God".
In modern times the President of the United States, in addition to issuing a proclamation, will "pardon" a turkey, which spares the bird's life and ensures that it will spend the duration of its life roaming freely on farmland.
Debate about first celebrations in the United States
The traditional representation of where the first Thanksgiving was held in the United States has often been a subject of boosterism and debate, though the debate is often confused by mixing up the ideas of a Thanksgiving holiday celebration and a Thanksgiving religious service. According to author James Baker, this debate is a "tempest in a beanpot" and "marvelous nonsense".
Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land.(Jeremy Bangs)
These claims include an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598, as well as thanksgiving feasts in the Virginia Colony. Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. A day for Thanksgiving services was codified in the founding charter of Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia in 1619.
According to Baker, "Historically, none of these had any influence over the evolution of the modern United States holiday. The American holiday's true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God's providence."
Fixing the date of the holiday
The reason for the earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada has often been attributed to the earlier onset of winter in the north, thus ending the harvest season earlier. Thanksgiving in Canada did not have a fixed date until the late 19th century. Prior to Canadian Confederation, many of the individual colonial governors of the Canadian provinces had declared their own days of Thanksgiving. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving occurred on April 15, 1872, when the nation was celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from a serious illness. By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day was normally celebrated on November 6. However, when World War I ended, the Armistice Day holiday was usually held during the same week. To prevent the two holidays from clashing with one another, in 1957 the Canadian Parliament proclaimed Thanksgiving to be observed on its present date on the second Monday of October. Since 1971, when the American Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, the American observance of Columbus Day has coincided with the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.
Much as in Canada, Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century. Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states. 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 realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. Two years earlier, Roosevelt had used a presidential proclamation to try to achieve this change, reasoning that earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost..