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What is The History of Thanksgiving

Updated on September 6, 2014

Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in tradition, yet ironically enough, most of the so-called traditions we cherish today are in fact not traditional.

The Real Story

Let’s go back to the fall of 1621 in Plymouth Rock, when Thanksgiving reportedly began. Yes, there was a gathering of people; yes, there was a feast; and yes, thanks was given, but was this a Thanksgiving holiday? No.

This feast of 1621 was simply that – a feast. After having endured a devastating winter during which they lost nearly half of the original crew who had come over on the Mayflower, the settlers were buoyed when autumn brought a much-needed bountiful harvest and they decided to celebrate.

[Interesting note: “Pilgrims” is a term someone else invented for these settlers. They actually referred to themselves as “Saints” and “Strangers.”]

History has it that this feast was a coming together of the settlers with the Native Americans, who had been key in helping them survive their first year at Plymouth Rock. While it’s true that the two groups did indeed celebrate together, the Native Americans weren’t exactly on the guest list.

In preparation for the harvest celebration, four settlers had gone out to hunt for food. When the Native Americans heard the gunshots, they mistakenly thought the Englishmen might be preparing for war and alerted their leader, who gathered 90 of his men and confronted the settlers. Upon finding out that the settlers were merely out to capture some food, the Native Americans joined the hunt, and subsequently partook of the celebration.

Another misconception is what the settlers and Native Americans actually feasted on during their celebration. Given that the sugar supply was low, that they didn’t yet have butter, and that the invention of the oven was still centuries away, they certainly weren’t feasting on basted turkeys and pumpkin pies. So what exactly did they eat? Though no explicit record of the actual menu exists, documents referencing the meal do indicate it likely included venison, wildfowl (possibly duck or goose), corn, eel, shellfish (e.g. lobster, clams, mussels), and roasted meat. Aside from the corn, which was probably used for bread and not eaten on the cob, the spread is a far cry from the “traditional” fare you would find today.

What might be even more surprising is that the settlers did not sport those silver-buckled shoes and dreary black clothing that has become so synonymous with them. On the contrary, they donned brightly colored attire. Go figure.

So when did Thanksgiving really begin and where did we get all of these so-called traditions from? We can thank a nineteenth century lady named Sarah Joseph Hale for most of our current customs. Hale was the editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine. She waged a more than three and half decade campaign to have Thanksgiving declared as a national holiday. Beginning in 1827, she petitioned president after president after president, publishing countless editorials and even sending letters to governors, senators, and other politicians. It wasn’t until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was in office and the Civil War had heightened, that she finally succeeded. Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as the day Thanksgiving would be celebrated, and thus began our holiday tradition.

[Interesting note: In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday up one week to spur sales during the Great Depression. He reluctantly moved it back in 1941 due to public outcry.]

Throughout her campaigning, Hale had published nearly a dozen cookbooks, which included recipes such as roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, and mashed potatoes – dishes that more closely resemble what you would typically find on American tables today.

As for the term “Pilgrims” and the idea that they wore those rather unflattering black outfits and clunky buckled shoes, your guess is as good as mine as to when and where it originated, but at your next Thanksgiving feast, take a minute to be thankful it’s not true.

What’s your favorite food to eat at Thanksgiving?


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    • GiblinGirl profile image

      GiblinGirl 4 years ago from New Jersey

      Thanks NateB11. I would say turkey is my favorite food too.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      I would definitely say turkey is my favorite Thanksgiving food. Though I like it all. This is fascinating info on what the "first" Thanksgiving actually was like and when the holiday actually started. Interesting stuff!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Chocolate is my favorite food to eat at Thanksgiving, particularly chocolate pecan pie.

      It is interesting to read some of today's interpretations of the historical record about the Separatists who worked together to find and then establish a place where they could have religious freedom due to England's 1559 Act of Uniformity.

      One writes that "Pilgrims embraced a socialistic way of living" without mentioning that the decision to do so was for a specified period of time. William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" is a useful tool when studying about the USA government's early roots.