Why Thanksgiving is Celebrated: Unraveling the Origins

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday in America, eagerly anticipated by families across the nation. It is a time for gathering, feasting, and expressing gratitude. But have you ever wondered why Thanksgiving is celebrated? In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the origins and traditions of this cherished holiday. From the historical events that shaped its inception to the modern-day customs associated with Thanksgiving, we will uncover the fascinating story behind this annual celebration.

Why Thanksgiving is Celebrated: The Myth and the Reality

One of the prevailing myths surrounding Thanksgiving is the notion that it originated from a feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. While there is some truth to this account, it is important to separate fact from fiction. Historians at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, confirm that a feast did take place that year, shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians. However, the details differ from the popular narrative.

Why Thanksgiving is Celebrated

According to historical records, the feast likely included venison and some form of fowl, although turkey is not specifically mentioned. Pumpkin was available, but the notion of a pumpkin pie is unlikely. Additionally, sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not necessarily as a relish. It is essential to acknowledge these nuances and dispel the misconceptions surrounding the Pilgrims and their feast with the Native Americans.

The Pilgrims’ Journey: Seeking Religious Freedom and Economic Prosperity

Contrary to what many believe, the Pilgrims did not embark on their journey to the New World solely in search of religious freedom. They had already found a haven of religious tolerance in Holland during the early 1600s. The primary motivation behind their decision to establish a colony in the New World was to preserve their English identity and pursue economic opportunities.

Furthermore, the image of Pilgrims dressed in black and white, adorned with buckles on their shoes, is a fabrication. Pilgrim women wore a variety of colors, including red, green, blue, and violet, while men also embraced a range of colors in their attire. These misconceptions highlight the importance of revisiting historical facts to gain a more accurate understanding of the Pilgrims’ journey and their role in the establishment of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving: Not Always an Annual Tradition

Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving was not initially conceived as an annual tradition starting from 1621. At that time, the feast held by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians was not regarded as the commencement of a new holiday. In fact, similar gatherings and days of thanksgiving were observed by different colonies throughout the year. It wasn’t until much later that Thanksgiving became an established annual celebration.

In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, November 26, as a Thanksgiving holiday. However, this proclamation was intended for that year only and was not directly linked to the Pilgrims’ feast. It was a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” dedicated to acknowledging the “beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The transition from sporadic celebrations to an official and recurring Thanksgiving holiday was a gradual process that unfolded over time.

why thanksgiving is celebrated

Sarah Josepha Hale: The Mother of Thanksgiving

One key figure played a pivotal role in transforming Thanksgiving into a nationally recognized holiday – Sarah Josepha Hale. Known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” Hale was a prominent 19th-century author, poet, and magazine editor. She served as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, during which she exerted significant influence over fashion, reading trends, and culinary practices.

Hale’s patriotic fervor and admiration for the Pilgrims’ feast led her to advocate for Thanksgiving to be recognized as an official annual holiday. Through her magazine, she popularized recipes for turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, which became synonymous with Thanksgiving. Hale embarked on a relentless lobbying campaign, writing an annual editorial in her magazine since 1846. She also corresponded with governors across the United States, urging them to support the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Abraham Lincoln: The President who Made Thanksgiving Official

The efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale bore fruit when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an official annual holiday. In 1863, amidst the turmoil of the Civil War, Lincoln heeded Hale’s call and declared Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The timing of this proclamation was significant, as it aimed to foster unity and gratitude among a divided nation.

In his proclamation, Lincoln emphasized the duty of all citizens to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and express gratitude for the many blessings bestowed upon the nation. Thanksgiving became a symbol of resilience and hope during challenging times, serving as a reminder of the nation’s capacity for gratitude even in the face of adversity.

Shifting Dates and the Modern Thanksgiving

The date of Thanksgiving underwent a series of changes before settling on its current observance on the fourth Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. This decision aimed to stimulate the economy by extending the Christmas shopping season. However, the move encountered significant opposition, leading Roosevelt to reinstate the fourth Thursday as the official date in 1941.

Since then, Thanksgiving has remained a cherished holiday, bringing families together to express gratitude and enjoy a bountiful feast. While the historical context and traditions surrounding Thanksgiving have evolved over time, its essence as a day of giving thanks endures.

The Presidential Pardon of a Turkey: A Modern Tradition

One intriguing tradition associated with Thanksgiving is the presidential pardon of a turkey. Contrary to popular belief, this tradition did not originate with Abraham Lincoln saving a turkey at his son’s request. The first official presidential pardon of a turkey occurred in 1989, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Legend has it that Lincoln’s son, Tad, requested that their Christmas turkey be spared, but this story does not align with the historical timeline of Thanksgiving. The modern tradition of the presidential pardon emerged much later, adding a touch of whimsy to the holiday festivities.

why thanksgiving is celebrated

Thanksgiving Fatigue: The Tryptophan Myth

Many people associate Thanksgiving with the notion that consuming turkey induces drowsiness. This belief stems from the presence of tryptophan, an amino acid thought to have a sedative effect. However, the reality is quite different. Turkey does contain tryptophan, but so do many other foods, including chicken. Moreover, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is not significant enough to cause drowsiness.

If you feel tired after a Thanksgiving feast, it is more likely due to the overall indulgence and the body’s natural response to a large meal. So, the next time you find yourself feeling lethargic after enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner, don’t blame the turkey!


Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in history, tradition, and the spirit of gratitude. From the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621 to Sarah Josepha Hale’s tireless efforts, and Abraham Lincoln’s official proclamation, Thanksgiving has evolved into a cherished national holiday. While some myths and misconceptions surround its origins, it remains a time for families to come together, express gratitude, and enjoy a delicious meal. As we gather around the Thanksgiving table each year, let us remember the true essence of this holiday – to give thanks for the blessings in our lives and to foster unity and goodwill among all.

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