To most Americans, the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts are the iconic inspiration for today’s Thanksgiving feast. After the winter of 1620 killed almost half of their people, the colonists formed a relationship with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe who taught them about fishing, planting, and hunting. By autumn of 1621, the colonists had collected enough food to feed the community through the coming winter. The Wampanoags joined the colonists in a three day feast in honor of their bounty. The feast probably did not include our modern staple: turkey. More likely, the colonists and Wampanoags dined on roast goose along with corn, cod fish, and lobster. This 1621, harvest meal is now commonly thought of as the first Thanksgiving.
Yet, for later generations of colonists, New England days of Thanksgiving had little to do with the 1621 harvest festival. Their’s was a religious holiday descended from Puritan days of fasting, prayer, and giving thanks to God. Every autumn, the governor of each colony would declare days of Thanksgiving for bountiful harvests, victorious battles, or drought ending rains. In 1777, the continental congress decreed that all 13 of America’s colonies celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving that year in celebration of their victory over the British at Saratoga. By the mid 19th century, many states celebrated the holiday; however, the date could vary by weeks or even months.
A determined magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale set about establishing a national Thanksgiving day. She passionately believed that such a day would help unite a nation headed toward civil war. Hale began a one woman letter writing campaign urging politicians to establish an annual day of Thanksgiving. Her efforts were finally rewarded by Abraham Lincoln who saw the unifying potential of the holiday. In 1863, four months after the victory at Gettysburg, he declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving day.
By the 20th century, Thanksgiving was a welcomed day of leisure from a six day work week. In the 1920s the national football league was formed. In an effort to boost attendance, the fledgling Detroit Lions devised the concept of a Thanksgiving day game. Parades also became a Turkey day tradition and department stores quickly saw their value as the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. The Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade began in 1924 and year after year millions of New Yorkers brave the cold to watch the festivities. Most of all, Thanksgiving is about family. With modern life moving faster than ever, Thanksgiving gives us a day to take a collective breath, reconnect with loved ones and remember just now much we have to be thankful for.