Thanksgiving Day

Contents

Introduction

History

Spaniards

1619 thanksgiving, the Virginia colony

1621 Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims at Plymouth

The Revolutionary War to nationhood

Thanksgiving proclamations in the first thirty years of nationhood

Lincoln and the Civil War

1939 to 1940

1941 to present

Traditional celebrations

Foods of the season

Giving thanks

Vacation and travel

Parades

Date

Future Thanksgiving dates 2009–2014

Friday after Thanksgiving

Advent (Christmas) season

Introduction

Thanksgiving Day is a harvest festival. Traditionally, it is a time to
give thanks for the harvest and express gratitude in general. It is a
holiday celebrated primarily in Canada and the United States. While
perhaps religious in origin, Thanksgiving is now primarily identified as
a secular holiday.

The date and location of the first Thanksgiving celebration is a topic
of modest contention. Though the earliest attested Thanksgiving
celebration was on September 8, 1565 in what is now Saint Augustine,
Florida, the traditional «first Thanksgiving» is venerated as having
occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in 1621.

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in
Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States.
Thanksgiving dinner is held on this day, usually as a gathering of
family members and friends.

Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in
November, is an annual federal holiday in the United States. It was
historically a religious observation to give thanks to God, but it is
now considered a secular holiday.

Most people celebrate by gathering at home with family or friends for a
holiday feast. Though the holiday’s origins can be traced to harvest
festivals which have been celebrated in many cultures since ancient
times, the American holiday has religious undertones related to the
deliverance of the English settlers by Native Americans after the harsh
winter at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

History

Spaniards

The first recorded Thanksgiving ceremony took place on September 8,
1565, when 600 Spanish settlers, under the leadership of Pedro Menendez
de Aviles, landed at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, and immediately
held a Mass of Thanksgiving for their safe delivery to the New World;
there followed a feast and celebration. As the La Florida colony did
become part of the United States, this can be classified as the first
Thanksgiving.

The Spanish colonial town of San Elizario (San Elceario), near El Paso,
Texas, has also been said to be the site of the first Thanksgiving to be
held in what is now known as the United States, though that was not a
harvest festival. Spaniard Don Juan de Onate ordered his expedition
party to rest and conducted a mass in celebration of thanksgiving on
April 30, 1598.

1619 thanksgiving, the Virginia colony

On December 4, 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred,
which comprised about 8,000 acres (32 km?) on the north bank of the
James River, near Herring Creek, in an area then known as Charles
Cittie, about 20 miles (32 km) upstream from Jamestown, where the first
permanent settlement of the Colony of Virginia had been established on
May 14, 1607.

The group’s charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly
as a «day of thanksgiving» to God. On that first day, Captain John
Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. As quoted from the section of
the Charter of Berkeley Hundred specifying the thanksgiving service: «We
ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for
plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept
holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.»

During the Indian Massacre of 1622, nine of the settlers at Berkeley.
Hundreds were killed, as well as about a third of the entire population
of the Virginia Colony. The Berkeley Hundred site and other outlying
locations were abandoned as the colonists withdrew to Jamestown and
other more secure points.

After several years, the site became Berkeley Plantation, and was long
the traditional home of the Harrison family, one of the First Families
of Virginia. In 1634, it became part of the first eight shires of
Virginia, as Charles City County, one of the oldest in the United
States, and is located along Virginia State Route 5, which runs parallel
to the river’s northern borders past sites of many of the James River
Plantations between the colonial capital city of Williamsburg (now the
site of Colonial Williamsburg) and the capital of the Commonwealth of
Virginia at Richmond.

Berkeley Plantation continues to be the site of an annual Thanksgiving
event to this day.

1621 Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims at Plymouth

Painting of «The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth» By Jennie A.
Brownscombe. (1914)

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 English as a slave in Europe
and travels in England). The Pilgrims set apart a day to celebrate at
Plymouth immediately after their first harvest, in 1621. At the time,
this was not regarded as a Thanksgiving observance; harvest festivals
were existing parts of English and Wampanoag tradition alike. Several
colonists have personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth,
Massachusetts: Pilgrims are not to be confused with Puritans who
established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby (current day
Boston) in 1628 and had very different religious beliefs.

The Pilgrims did not hold a true Thanksgiving until 1623, when it
followed a drought, prayers for rain, and a subsequent rain shower.
Irregular Thanksgivings continued after favorable events and days of
fasting after unfavorable ones. In the Plymouth tradition, a
thanksgiving day was a church observance, rather than a feast day.

Gradually, an annual Thanksgiving after the harvest developed in the
mid-17th century. This did not occur on any set day or necessarily on
the same day in different colonies in America.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony (consisting mainly of Puritan Christians)
celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in 1630, and frequently
thereafter until about 1680, when it became an annual festival in that
colony; and Connecticut as early as 1639 and annually after 1647, except
in 1675. The Dutch in New Netherland appointed a day for giving thanks
in 1644 and occasionally thereafter.

Charlestown, Massachusetts held the first recorded Thanksgiving
observance June 29, 1671 by proclamation of the town’s governing
council.

During the 18th century individual colonies commonly observed days of
thanksgiving throughout each year. We might not recognize a traditional
Thanksgiving Day from that period, as it was not a day marked by
plentiful food and drink as is today’s custom, but rather a day set
aside for prayer and fasting.

Later in the 1700s individual colonies would periodically designate a
day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a
state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop. Such a
Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December 1777 by the colonies
nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at
Saratoga.

The Revolutionary War to nationhood

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.

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.

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 were celebrated in autumn.
In 1816, Governor Plamer 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. In some of the Southern states there was opposition to the
observance of such a day on the ground that it was a relic of Puritanic
bigotry, but by 1858 proclamations appointing a day of thanksgiving were
issued by the governors of 25 states and two territories.

Lincoln and the Civil War

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.

Lithograph, Home To Thanksgiving 1867

1939 to 1940

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, and Roosevelt declared the fourth
Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. In 1940, in which
November had four Thursdays, he declared the third one as Thanksgiving.
Although many popular histories state otherwise, he made clear that his
plan was to establish it 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 back a week
to expand the shopping season.

However, many localities had made a tradition of celebrating on the last
Thursday, and since a presidential declaration of Thanksgiving Day was
not legally binding, it 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 weeks as government holidays. Critics
termed Roosevelt’s dating of the holiday as «Franksgiving.»

1941 to present

President Truman receiving a Thanksgiving turkey from members of the
Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey
industry, outside the White House

The U.S. Congress in 1941 split the difference and passed a bill
requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday
of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes (less
frequently) the next to last. On December 26 of that year President
Roosevelt signed this bill, for the first time making the date of
Thanksgiving a matter of federal law. See 55 Stat. 862 (1941).

Since 1947, or possibly earlier, the National Turkey Federation has
presented the President of the United States with one live turkey and
two dressed turkeys, in a ceremony known as the National Thanksgiving
Turkey Presentation. The live turkey is pardoned and lives out the rest
of its days on a peaceful farm. While it is commonly held that this
pardoning tradition began with Harry Truman in 1947, the Truman Library
has been unable to find any evidence for this. The earliest on record is
with George H. W. Bush in 1989. Still others claim that the tradition
dates back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son’s pet turkey. Both
stories have been quoted in more recent presidential speeches. In more
recent years, two turkeys have been pardoned, in case the original
turkey becomes unavailable for presidential pardoning.

Since 1970, a group of Native Americans and other assorted protesters
(mostly of progressive political persuasion) have held a National Day of
Mourning protest on Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth,
Massachusetts in the name of social equality and in honor of political
prisoners.

Traditional celebrations

Foods of the season

U.S. tradition compares the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the
Wampanoag and the Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This
element continues in modern times with the Thanksgiving dinner, often
featuring turkey, playing a large role in the celebration of
Thanksgiving. Some of the details of the American Thanksgiving story are
myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s as part of the effort
to forge a common national identity in the aftermath of the Civil War
and in the melting pot of new immigrants.

Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at
Thanksgiving meals. First and foremost, baked or roasted turkey is
usually the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table (so much so
that Thanksgiving is sometimes referred to as «Turkey Day»). Stuffing,
mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn,
other fall vegetables, and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with
Thanksgiving dinner. All of these primary dishes are actually native to
the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans
when they arrived. As an alternative to turkey, many vegetarians or
vegans eat tofurky, a meatless turkey made of tofu.

To feed the needy 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.

Giving thanks

Saying grace before carving the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving was originally a religious observance for all the members
of the community to give thanks to God for a common purpose. Historic
reasons for community thanksgivings include the 1541 thanksgiving mass
after the expedition of Coronado safely crossing part of Texas and
finding game, and the 1777 thanksgiving after the victory in the
revolutionary battle of Saratoga. In his 1789 Proclamation, President
Washington gave many noble reasons for a national Thanksgiving,
including “for the civil and religious liberty,” for “useful knowledge,”
and for God’s “kind care” and «His Providence.» The only presidents to
inject a specifically Christian focus to their proclamation have been
Grover Cleveland in 1896, and William McKinley in 1900. Several other
presidents have cited the Judeo-Christian tradition. Gerald Ford’s 1975
declaration made no clear reference to any divinity.

The tradition of giving thanks to God is continued today in various
forms. Religious and spiritual organizations offer services and events
on Thanksgiving themes the week-end before, the day of, or the week-end
after Thanksgiving. Bishop Ryan observed about Thanksgiving Day, «It is
the only day we have that consistently finds Catholics at Mass in
extraordinary numbers…even though it is not a holy day of obligation.»

In celebrations at home, it is a holiday tradition in many families to
begin the Thanksgiving dinner by saying grace. Found in diverse
religious traditions, grace is a prayer before or after a meal to
express appreciation to God, to ask for God’s blessing, or in some
philosophies, to express an altruistic wish or dedication. The custom is
portrayed in the photograph “Family Holding Hands and Praying Before a
Thanksgiving Meal.” The grace may be led by the hostess or host, as has
been traditional, or, in contemporary fashion, each person may
contribute words of blessing or thanks. According to a 1998 Gallup poll,
an estimated 64 percent of Americans say grace.

Vacation and travel

On Thanksgiving Day, families and friends usually gather for a large
meal or dinner, the result being that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend
is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. In the United States,
Thanksgiving is a four-day or five-day weekend vacation in school and
college calendars. Most business and government workers (78% in 2007)
are also given both Thanksgiving and the day after as paid holidays.
Thanksgiving Eve, on the Wednesday night before, has been one of the
busiest nights of the year for bars and clubs, both in terms of sales
and volume of patrons, as many students have returned to their hometowns
from college.

In Buffalo, New York, the Saturday after Thanksgiving is the day of the
World’s Largest Disco, a tribute to disco and the 1970s that regularly
draws thousands of dancers and the top performing acts of the 1970s.

Parades

In New York City, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (often erroneously
referred to as the «Macy’s Day Parade») is held annually every
Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s
flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally by NBC. The
parade features parade floats with specific themes, scenes from Broadway
plays, large balloons of cartoon characters and TV personalities, and
high school marching bands. The float that traditionally ends the Macy’s
Parade is the Santa Claus float, the arrival of which unofficially
signifies that the Christmas season has begun.

The Pittsburgh and Minneapolis parades are co-sponsored by Macy’s.
Several other parades have a loose association with Thanksgiving, thanks
to CBS’s now-discontinued All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage.
Parades that were covered during this era were the Aloha Floral Parade
held in Honolulu, Hawaii every September, the Toronto Santa Claus Parade
in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the Opryland Aqua Parade (held from
1996 to 2001 by the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in
Nashville); the Opryland parade was discontinued replaced by a taped
parade in Miami Beach, Florida in 2002. A Disneyland parade was also
featured on CBS until Disney purchased rival ABC.

Date

Since being fixed at the fourth Thursday in November by law in 1941, the
holiday in the United States can occur as early as November 22 to as
late as November 28. When it falls on November 22 or 23, it is not the
last Thursday, but the second to last Thursday in November. As it is a
Federal holiday, all United States government offices are closed and
employees are paid for that day. It is also a holiday for the New York
Stock Exchange, and also for most other financial markets and financial
services companies.

Future Thanksgiving dates 2009–2014

November 26, 2009

November 25, 2010

November 24, 2011

November 22, 2012

November 28, 2013

November 27, 2014

Friday after Thanksgiving

The Friday after Thanksgiving, although not a Federal holiday, is often
a company holiday for many in the U.S. workforce, except for those in
retail. It is also a day off for most schools. The Friday after
Thanksgiving is popularly known as Black Friday, so-called because of
the heavy shopping traffic on that day. Black Friday is considered to be
the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Advent (Christmas) season

The secular Thanksgiving holiday also coincides with the start of the
four week Advent season before Christmas in the Western Christian church
calendars. Advent starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day on
December 25; in other words, the Sunday between November 27 and December
3 inclusive.

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