Origins of Thanksgiving

We all know the story of how the pilgrims and Native Americans “broke bread” at one of the very first Thanksgivings. They shared the first autumn harvest feast in 1621 with many more to come. We can learn more about the origins by first examining Thanksgiving at Plymouth and then discovering when Thanksgiving became an official holiday.

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Plymouth

The Mayflower, a small ship, left Plymouth England in September 1620. The ship carried 102 passengers consisting of a variety of religious separatists seeking a new home to freely practice their faith. The New World promise of wealth and prosperity lured others aboard. The Pilgrims settled across Massachusetts Bay one month later.

The first year proved to be brutal for the colonists. Many suffered from exposure, scurvy and disease outbreaks. Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast in November 1621 after the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest. He invited a group of the colony’s Native American allies. This gathering is considered to be America’s first Thanksgiving even though those words may not have been used at the time.

 

National Holiday

The evolution of a Thanksgiving holiday began during the American Revolution. In fact, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanks per year. In 1789, the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States was issued by George Washington. He wished for Americans to express their gratitude for the favorable outcome of the war for independence and successful ratification of U.S. Constitution.

New York with several other states following suite officially adopted an annual Thanksgiving holiday in 1817. However, each of the states celebrated on different days. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” launched campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1827. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln answered her request in 1863 and scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday of every November.

Official Thanksgiving was celebrated the last Thursday of November annually until 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to move the holiday up a week to stimulate retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan was met with fierce, passionate opposition. He eventually and reluctantly signed a bill making the final Thursday the official date for the Thanksgiving holiday.