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A Brits Guide to The Thanksgiving

Updated on November 18, 2016

Living in the US you cannot escape Thanksgiving. Modern Thanksgiving includes food, football, shopping and family, but where did the tradition originate?

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe | Source

The First Thanksgiving

There is much debate as to the origins of the first Thanksgiving. Most Americans learn at school about the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621. Some historians however, state evidence of European settlers in North American that pre date the pilgrims. For example, in December 1619 thirty eight British settlers declared a day of thanksgiving after landing on the Banks of the James River in Virginia.

Wherever the first feast took place, it is almost certain that the origins are rooted in the English tradition of a harvest festival where thanks are given for a good harvest and it is likely this tradition travelled with settlers.

The Thanksgiving Pilgrims

In September of 1620 after several delays, a group of 102 passengers boarded the Mayflower in the port of Plymouth England, sailing to the new world. After a journey of nine and a half weeks they landed, and began building a new colony in a place they named Plymouth. The first winter was harsh and over half of those who began the journey died from illnesses caused by malnutrition, the harsh conditions and disease.

Pilgrims First Year

After the first good corn harvest, achieved with help from the Native Americans, the pilgrims held a celebratory feast. They invited a group of North American Allies, including the Wamparoag Chief Massasoit. The feast was to last for three days.

Replica of the Mayflower at Plymouth MA

replica of the Mayflower sailed from the Uk to Plymouth in 1957.
replica of the Mayflower sailed from the Uk to Plymouth in 1957. | Source

The Modern Thanksgiving Meal

The typical Thanksgiving meal enjoyed today by many Americans usually consists of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potato, followed by pumpkin pie. Many states typically adapt this basic meal with foods found in their region or cultural traditions. In New Mexico for example, it is common to use chilies in the stuffing. In Minnesota the turkey is often stuffed with wild rice and in Washington State locally grown hazelnuts are included.

The Pilgrims Thanksgiving Meal

The original thanksgiving meal would have been slightly different to the meal eaten today.

Turkey - it is very likely that turkey was on the menu. Turkey's have run wild in the US for centuries. Other meat might have included duck, geese and swan. One Pilgrim chronicler wrote that the Wampanoag guests brought 5 deer to the meal.

Fruit and vegetables - the first harvest would have brought onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrot and peas. Corn would also have been eaten but as cornmeal made into a porridge. Blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and cranberries would have been served.

Fish and Shellfish - It is likely that this would have made up the bulk of the meal. Mussels would have been easily resourced from the rocky beach. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters would have also been readily available.

Potatoes - not yet a common vegetable at this time.

Pumpkin - pumpkins would have been available to the pilgrims, but due to dwindling sugar and flour supplies, no access to butter and no oven they would not be able to bake a pie at that time.

How the Holiday Evolved in the US

In 1777 congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving and by the 1880's almost every state celebrated in some way, although the date differed from state to state. Influenced by the many letters sent by Sarah Josepha Hale asking for an official holiday, in 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final thursday in November Thanksgiving, hoping to promote a sense of unity. Due to the Civil War this was not finalized until the 1870's.

On December 1914 president F. D. Roosevelt signed a resolution with congress declaring the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving and in 1941 it was made an official national holiday.

Modern Day Thanksgiving Traditions

Football - football has been part of the Thanksgiving celebrations as far back as 1876. The college teams at Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of playing each other on Thanksgiving Day. Football at all levels play games on or the weekend of Thanksgiving. Many high schools and colleges play rival games.

Travel - traveling at Thanksgiving is one of the most busiest times of year to travel. Notorious for flight delays, traffic jams and high expenses, many Americans travel to be with loved ones.

Food - the animal rights group PETA states that 45 million turkey are killed each year for Thanksgiving tables.

Macy's Parade - the first Macy's Thanksgiving day parade took place in New York in 1924. Organized by the employees, it included animals from Central Park Zoo.

Black Friday Shopping - the Friday after Thanksgiving is considered the first day of Christmas shopping. Retailers open increasngly early, some even on Thanksgiving day and offer many 'door buster' deals to entice shoppers.

Volunteering - many Americans participate in offering service to those in need at this time of year. Food drives, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and churches are all popular choices.

Interesting Thanksgiving Facts

Snoopy has appeared as a giant balloon more times than any character in the Macy's Parade.

In 2001 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative Thanksgiving stamp designed by Margaret Cusack.

Three towns in the US take their name from the Thanksgiving celebration -

Turkey in Texas

Turkey Creek in Louisiana

Turkey in North Carolina

Sarah Josepha Hale who petitioned for a national Thanksgiving holiday was the author of the rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb.

History of Thanksgiving

© 2014 Ruthbro


Submit a Comment
  • Ruthbro profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from USA

    Thank you, we love the parade too!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    4 years ago

    I can't imagine a THanksgiving without potatoes! Well, I have to say I do follow most of the new ones you list here. I always enjoy the THanksgiving parade and it's tops after the meal.


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