The origin of Thanksgiving Day has been attributed to a harvest feast held by the Plymouth Colony. In 1621, Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed a day of “thanksgiving” and prayer to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest in America the year after their arrival on the merchant ship Mayflower. The picture you usually see of a few Native American men joining the Pilgrims at the feast is a bit inaccurate however. From original settler Edward Winslow in a letter to a friend in 1621, we know that some 90 men accompanied the Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit, to visit at Plymouth for three days of fish, fowl, and venison. But of the roughly 100 English settlers who had spent their first year on the Massachusetts coast, about half had died by this time. This would have left about half the 52 survivors as English men. So the Native men outnumbered the Pilgrim men by over three to one!
The idea of a day set apart to celebrate the completion of the harvest and to render homage to the Spirit who caused the fruits and crops to grow is both ancient and universal. The practice of designating a day of thanksgiving for specific spiritual or secular benefits has been followed in many countries.
One of the first general proclamations was made in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676. President George Washington in 1789 issued the first presidential thanksgiving proclamation in honor of the new constitution. During the 19th century an increasing number of states observed the day annually, each appointing its own day. President Abraham Lincoln, on October 3, 1863, by presidential proclamation appointed the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, due to the unremitting efforts of Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Each succeeding president made similar proclamations until Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939 appointed the third Thursday of November, primarily to allow a special holiday weekend for national public holiday. This was changed two years later by both congress and the President to the fourth Thursday of November. Now you understand that scene in the movie “Holiday Inn” where the confused turkey jumps between alternative Thursdays in the calendar in November.
Thanksgiving Day remains a day when many express gratitude to God for blessings and celebrate material bounty.
P.S. I’ve often been asked if the British also celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. They do, but they mark it on July 4th.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian