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The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 4/23/2014

Lots of people have chosen Thanksgiving Day as their favorite holiday. Who doesn’t like watching the Macy’s Day parade, stuffing themselves with turkey and all the trimmings, and settling in for the big football game? Historically, though, our day of giving thanks was very different in its origins.

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    Pilgrim’s “First Thanksgiving”

    teen family dinner Most of us learn in grade school that in 1621, the Pilgrims and the Indians created a holiday for giving thanks and commemorated the day with sharing turkey. This is no hard evidence that turkey was the main course, however, as the meats were called “fowl”—and probably represented a variety of birds. It is believed that the Indians probably brought along deer.

    Was this day actually called Thanksgiving? That name did not become firmly established until after World War II because of an aggressive marketing campaign on the part of the poultry industry. But let's not get ahead of ourselves yet.

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    The Pilgrims and Their Voyage

    The Pilgrims were a Puritan sect that were originally members of the English Separatists Church. In order to escape religious persecution they first went to Holland, although they could not fall in lock-step with the Dutch way of life, thinking it too crass. Instead, they made a bargain with a London stock and shipping company for passage to America and boarded the Mayflower. You can take the two-month journey and tour the ship at this Scholastic site.

    Many of the passengers perished along the way and some succumbed to hardship on their arrival in 1620. A tribe of Wampanoag Native Americans or "eastern peoples" helped many to survive in the Massachusetts Bay area. The Pilgrim’s typical way of celebrating their days of thanksgiving was a religious function, and they abstained from food and spent their days in prayer. The following year in the fall, however, their hard efforts to farm paid off and they celebrated a bountiful harvest that lasted for three days. The native Indians who had helped them came and celebrated in a typical Harvest Home ceremony common to the Pilgrims’ old English heritage.

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    The Power of Marketing

    Thanksgivings were actually intermittent in America up until 1863. An indomitable spirit named Sarah Jospeha Hale, the editor of first the Boston Lady’s Magazine and then the Godey’s Lady’s Book had waged a one-woman campaign to make it a regular, national holiday for four decades. President Lincoln saw the virtue in that and designated the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day, in 1863.

    The poultry industry lobbied for Americans to choose a hybrid gobbler as their favorite stuffed bird—a symbol of abundance—and helped to invent the supposed Pilgrim tradition.

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    A President’s Faux Pas

    passtheplate But that was not the first attempt to establish a thanksgiving holiday. The first Federal Congress passed a resolution on September 28, 1789—just before leaving for recess—urging the President of the United States to recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving. Within days, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgivin"—the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.

    Then an odd thing happened. In 1939 during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, he felt pressure from retailers because Thanksgiving was slated to appear on the last day of the month, shortening the Christmas shopping season. So he took it upon himself to issue a Presidential Proclamation to move Thanksgiving to the second to the last Thursday of the month that year. Some states came on board although half as many did not. The confusion about when to celebrate was problematic to say the least. So in October of 1941, the House declared the holiday to be the last Thursday in the month, but the Senate had its own version to use a "fixed" date (for months when there were five Thursdays) and Roosevelt finally signed the amendment making the fourth Thursday in November an official Federal holiday.