How Thanksgiving Started: A Historical Journey

Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday in the United States, a time when families come together to express gratitude and enjoy a bountiful meal. But have you ever wondered how Thanksgiving started?. In this article, we will take a historical journey to explore the origins of Thanksgiving and uncover the fascinating story behind this holiday.

The Pilgrims’ Voyage and Arrival

In September 1620, a group of religious separatists, known as the Pilgrims, embarked on a treacherous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Their ship, the Mayflower, carried 102 passengers, including men, women, and children, who sought a new home where they could freely practice their faith. The journey was long and uncomfortable, lasting 66 days before the Mayflower dropped anchor near Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.

How Thanksgiving Started

The Harsh Winter and the Arrival of Squanto

The Pilgrims faced numerous challenges upon their arrival in the New World. They suffered from exposure, scurvy, and contagious diseases during the harsh winter months. Only half of the original passengers and crew of the Mayflower survived to see the spring of 1621. Despite their hardships, the Pilgrims were not alone. In March, they encountered a member of the Abenaki tribe who greeted them in English, surprising the settlers. Several days later, the same Native American, named Squanto, returned with another tribe member. Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. He eventually escaped to London and returned to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.

Squanto played a crucial role in the survival of the Pilgrims. He taught them how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish, and identify poisonous plants. Squanto’s knowledge and assistance were invaluable, and he also helped the Pilgrims establish an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe. This alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag endured for more than 50 years and remains a rare example of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

The First Thanksgiving Feast

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast to give thanks for the bountiful harvest. This festival, now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving,” lasted for three days. While there is no record of the exact menu, Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow provides some insight into the occasion: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors”.

How Thanksgiving Started

Historians speculate that the first Thanksgiving meal likely included traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Due to the Pilgrims’ lack of an oven and depleted sugar supply, the feast did not feature pies, cakes, or other desserts that are now synonymous with Thanksgiving celebrations.

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

While the early settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, held their Thanksgiving celebrations, it was not until many years later that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor and writer, campaigned for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday for 36 years. Her efforts finally paid off when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863, during the height of the Civil War, designating Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

President Lincoln’s proclamation called upon Americans to express gratitude for the country’s successful conclusion of the war of independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Thanksgiving was scheduled to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November and remained on that day until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to boost retail sales during the Great Depression. After facing opposition, Thanksgiving was officially set as the fourth Thursday in November by an act of Congress in 1941.

Thanksgiving Food Traditions

While the original Thanksgiving feast may have differed from today’s traditional holiday spread, certain elements have endured through the years. Turkey, a symbol of abundance and an iconic centerpiece of Thanksgiving, is enjoyed by nearly 90 percent of Americans on this holiday. Other customary dishes include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. These culinary traditions have become deeply ingrained in American households, with families passing down recipes and techniques from generation to generation.

How Thanksgiving Started

Volunteering and giving back to the community have also become integral parts of the Thanksgiving holiday. Many people take part in food drives, donate to charities, and volunteer at local organizations to ensure that everyone has a warm meal and a reason to be thankful.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

One of the most beloved Thanksgiving traditions is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, held annually in New York City since 1924. The parade features elaborate floats, marching bands, and giant balloons shaped like popular cartoon characters. It attracts millions of spectators along its 2.5-mile route and has become a cherished spectacle for families across the nation. The parade’s history is filled with fascinating moments and iconic characters, evolving over the years to become the renowned event it is today.

Controversies and Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is widely celebrated and cherished, it is not without its controversies. Some scholars argue that the feast in Plymouth may not have been the first Thanksgiving in North America. Earlier ceremonies of gratitude were recorded among European settlers in different regions. For example, in 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Avile held a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival [^1^]. Additionally, Native Americans and others have criticized the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving for portraying a false harmony between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. They argue that this narrative overlooks the long history of conflict and violence between European settlers and Native Americans.

How Thanksgiving Started

Despite these debates, Thanksgiving continues to hold a special place in American culture, reminding us of the importance of gratitude, unity, and coming together as a community.

Ancient Origins of Thanksgiving

The concept of giving thanks and celebrating a bountiful harvest is not unique to America or the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving can be traced back to ancient times and various cultures around the world. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, feasts were held to express gratitude to the gods after the fall harvest. Similarly, the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot shares similarities with Thanksgiving, emphasizing gratitude and abundance.

Native Americans also had a rich tradition of celebrating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before the arrival of European settlers. These celebrations, often intertwined with spiritual beliefs and rituals, showcased the deep connection between Native Americans and the land.


As we gather around the Thanksgiving table each year, it is important to reflect on the historical origins of this beloved holiday. From the Pilgrims’ journey to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the story behind Thanksgiving is one of resilience, gratitude, and the coming together of diverse cultures. While controversies and debates surround the holiday, Thanksgiving remains a cherished tradition that reminds us to be thankful for the blessings in our lives and to foster unity within our communities. So, as you savor your Thanksgiving feast this year, take a moment to appreciate the rich history and meaning behind this special holiday.

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