American Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, is a public holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November in the United States. It originated as a harvest festival. Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, after a proclamation by George Washington. It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Together with Christmas and the New Year, Thanksgiving is a part of the broader holiday season.
Setting aside time to give thanks for one’s blessings, along with holding feasts to celebrate a harvest, are both practices that long predate the European settlement of North America. The first documented thanksgiving services in territory currently belonging to the United States were conducted by Spaniards and the French in the sixteenth century.
Thanksgiving services were routine in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607, with the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610. In 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred. The group’s charter required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Three years later, after the Indian massacre of 1622, the Berkeley Hundred site and other outlying locations were abandoned.
Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season. Autumn or early winter feasts continued sporadically in later years, first as an impromptu religious observance, and later as a civil tradition.
Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
The Pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth for three days after their first harvest in 1621. The exact time is unknown, but James Baker, then Plimoth Plantation vice president of research, stated in 1996, “The event occurred between September 21 and November 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (September 29), the traditional time.” Seventeenth-century accounts do not identify this as a thanksgiving observance, rather it followed the harvest. It included 50 persons who were on the Mayflower (all who remained of the 100 who had landed) and 90 Native Americans. The feast was cooked by the four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White), along with young daughters and male and female servants.
Two colonists gave personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth. The Pilgrims, most of whom were Separatists (English Dissenters), are not to be confused with Puritans, who established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony on the Shawmut Peninsula (current day Boston) in 1630. Both groups were strict Calvinists, but differed in their views regarding the Church of England. Puritans wished to remain in the Anglican Church and reform it, while the Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the church.
William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation wrote:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they can be used (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports”
Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation wrote:
“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 fruits of our labor. 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, 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 we 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 Pilgrims held a true thanksgiving celebration in 1623 following a fast, and a refreshing 14-day rain which resulted in a larger harvest. William DeLoss Love calculates that this thanksgiving was made on Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, but before the fall harvest. In Love’s opinion this 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority (Governor Bradford), and not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.
Referring to the 1623 harvest after the nearly catastrophic drought, Bradford wrote:
“And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had … pretty well … so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.”
These first hand accounts do not appear to have contributed to the early development of the holiday. Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” was not published until the 1850s. While the booklet “Mourt’s Relation” was summarized by other publications without the now familiar thanksgiving story. By the eighteenth century the original booklet appeared to be lost or forgotten. A copy was rediscovered in Philadelphia in 1820, with the first full reprinting in 1841. In a footnote the editor, Alexander Young, was the first person to identify the 1621 feast as the first Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was celebrated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the first time in 1630, and frequently thereafter until about 1680, when it became an annual festival in that colony. Thanksgiving was celebrated in the Connecticut Colony as early as 1639 and annually after 1647, except in 1675. The colonists of New Netherland appointed a day for giving thanks in 1644 and occasionally thereafter.
In the eighteenth century, individual colonies would periodically designate a day of thanksgiving at different times of the year in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop.
During the American Revolutionary War the Continental Congress appointed one or more thanksgiving days each year, each time recommending to the executives of the various states the observance of these days in their states.
The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777 from its temporary location in York, Pennsylvania, while the British occupied the national capital at Philadelphia. Delegate Samuel Adams created the first draft. George Washington, leader of the revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War, proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga. The Continental-Confederation Congress, the legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, issued several “national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving”, a practice that was continued by Presidents Washington and Adams under the Constitution, and has manifested itself in the established American observances of Thanksgiving and the National Day of Prayer today.
On Thursday, September 24, 1789, the first House of Representatives voted to recommend the First Amendment of the newly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification. The next day, Congressman Elias Boudinot from New Jersey proposed that the House and Senate jointly request of President Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for “the many signal favors of Almighty God”. Boudinot said that he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”
As President, on October 3, 1789, George Washington made the following proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next 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. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
George Washington again proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1795.
President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799. No Thanksgiving proclamations were issued by Thomas Jefferson but James Madison renewed the tradition in 1814, in response to resolutions of Congress, at the close of the War of 1812. Madison also declared the holiday twice in 1815; however, none of these was celebrated in autumn. In 1816, Governor Plumer of New Hampshire appointed Thursday, November 14 to be observed as a day of Public Thanksgiving and Governor Brooks of Massachusetts appointed Thursday, November 28 to be “observed throughout that State as a day of Thanksgiving”.
A thanksgiving day was annually appointed by the governor of New York from 1817. By 1858 proclamations appointing a day of thanksgiving were issued by the governors of 25 states and two territories.
In the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.
During the second half of the 19th century, Thanksgiving traditions in America varied from region to region. A traditional New England Thanksgiving, for example, consisted of a raffle held on Thanksgiving Eve (in which the prizes were mainly geese or turkeys), a shooting match on Thanksgiving morning (in which turkeys and chickens were used as targets), church services—and then the traditional feast, which consisted of some familiar Thanksgiving staples such as turkey and pumpkin pie, and some not-so-familiar dishes such as pigeon pie.
The earliest high school football rivalries took root in the late nineteenth century in Massachusetts, stemming from games played on Thanksgiving; professional football took root as a Thanksgiving staple during the sport’s genesis in the 1890s, and the tradition of Thanksgiving football both at the high school and professional level continues to this day.
In New York City, people would dress up in fanciful masks and costumes and roam the streets in merry-making mobs. By the beginning of the twentieth century, these mobs had morphed into “ragamuffin parades” consisting mostly of children dressed as “ragamuffins” in costumes of old and mismatched adult clothes and with deliberately smudged faces, but by the late 1950s the tradition had vanished entirely.
Abraham Lincoln’s successors as president followed his example of annually declaring the final Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving. But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with this tradition. November had five Thursdays that year (instead of the more-common four), Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. Although many popular histories state otherwise, he made clear that his plan was to establish the holiday on the next-to-last Thursday in the month instead of the last one. With the country still in the midst of The Great Depression, Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Increasing profits and spending during this period, Roosevelt hoped, would help bring the country out of the Depression. At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate. Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving to a week earlier to expand the shopping season, and within two years the change passed through Congress into law.
Republicans decried the change, calling it an affront to the memory of Lincoln. People began referring to November 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and November 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving”. Regardless of the politics, many localities had made a tradition of celebrating on the last Thursday, and many football teams had a tradition of playing their final games of the season on Thanksgiving; with their schedules set well in advance, they could not change. Since a presidential declaration of Thanksgiving Day was not legally binding, Roosevelt’s change was widely disregarded. Twenty-three states went along with Roosevelt’s recommendation, 22 did not, and some, like Texas, could not decide and took both days as government holidays.
In 1940 and 1941, years in which November had four Thursdays, Roosevelt declared the third one as Thanksgiving. As in 1939, some states went along with the change while others retained the traditional last-Thursday date.
On October 6, 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was usually the last Thursday and sometimes (two years out of seven, on average) the next to last. The amendment also passed the House, and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.
For several years some states continued to observe the last-Thursday date in years with five November Thursdays (the next such year being 1944), with Texas doing so as late as 1956.
In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Turkey, usually roasted and stuffed (but sometimes deep-fried instead), is typically the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table, so much so that Thanksgiving is colloquially known as “Turkey Day.” In fact, 45 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone in 2015. With 85 percent of Americans partaking in the meal, that’s an estimated 276 million Americans dining on the festive poultry, spending an expected $1.05 billion on turkeys for Thanksgiving in 2016.
Mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables, squash, and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Green bean casserole was introduced in 1955 and remains a favorite. All of these are actually native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans when they arrived. Turkey may be an exception. In his book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that the Pilgrims might already have been familiar with turkey in England, even though the bird is native to the Americas. The Spaniards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a “fixture at English Christmases”. The Pilgrims did not observe Christmas.
As a result of the size of Thanksgiving dinner, Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.
The poor are often provided with food at Thanksgiving time. Most communities have annual food drives that collect non-perishable packaged and canned foods, and corporations sponsor charitable distributions of staple foods and Thanksgiving dinners. The Salvation Army enlists volunteers to serve Thanksgiving dinners to hundreds of people in different locales. Additionally, pegged to be five days after Thanksgiving is Giving Tuesday, a celebration of charitable giving.
Scott #2283 portrays the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), not exactly the traditional bird for Thanksgiving but it’s the closest I have in my collection! This is a 25-cent booklet stamp issued by the United States on April 29, 1988, perforated 10 on two sides (lower right corner of the pane) and printed by lithography. The common pheasant is one of the world’s most hunted birds. They were introduced in North America in 1881, and have become well established throughout much of the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, etc.), the Midwest, the Plains states, as well as Canada and Mexico. In the southwest, they can even be seen south of the Rockies in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is now most common on the Great Plains. Common pheasants have also been introduced to much of northwest Europe, the Hawaiian Islands, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia including the island state of Tasmania and small offshore islands such as Rottnest Island off Western Australia.
Pheasant hunting is very popular in much of the U.S., especially in the Great Plains states, where a mix of farmland and native grasslands provides ideal habitat. South Dakota alone has an annual harvest of over a million birds a year by over 200,000 hunters.
Much of the North American hunting is done by groups of hunters, who walk through fields and shoot the birds as they are flushed by dogs such as Labrador Retrievers and Springer Spaniels. There are also many hunters who use Pointers such as English Setters or German Shorthairs to find and hold pheasants for hunters to flush and shoot.