Commentary: The Tangled and Evolving History of Giving Thanks


Above, a traditional depiction of the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts -- but it turns out the tradition is even older.

By Olympia Caswell

If you’re American, you know and most likely celebrate Thanksgiving every November with friends and family. Think turkey, pumpkin pie, football, the Macy's Day Parade, and Black Friday shopping. It is indeed a staple of American culture, but where did the holiday and its traditions originate and how has it changed from when it was first celebrated?

Debates over ordinal Thanksgiving feast

Though most people look to the Pilgrim's feast in 1621 as the start of what we know as Thanksgiving, there's some debate over whether or not it could have gone further back. Some believe the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his 1,500 men were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving. The group left Mexico City in 1540 to search for gold and stopped to rest in Palo Duro Canyon, there calling for a feast of prayer and thanksgiving.

Others believe Juan de Oñate, a rich Spanish dignitary, was the founder back in 1598. He along with 500 men, women, and children, made a journey to create a new path connecting the Chihuahua Desert to the Rio Grande. It was an incredibly exhausting and dangerous expedition, and when they finally reached the river, Juan de Oñate ordered a feast of thanksgiving involving roasted meat, fish, and a grand celebration of their survival.

The Plymouth Feast of 1621

The most commonly retold theory in American tradition, though, is that the first Thanksgiving occurred between English colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Most of what we know about this event came from a letter written by Edward Winslow, one of the people who sailed from England to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. The colonists wished to commemorate their first successful crop of maize and barley, which had been cultivated with significant help from the native Wampanoag Indians.

Similarities and Differences

So what do we still share in common with the original colonists, and where have we created new traditions?

Date and Length

The first difference is the date of celebration. Whereas today we celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November, the colonists’ feast may have not even occurred specifically in November, favoring instead a range of time spanning from late September to mid-November. Their feasting was also stretched out over the course of three full days, while today we set aside only a single day for our celebration.


As we all know, food is one of the biggest parts of Thanksgiving. Typical on today’s Thanksgiving table is roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, with green beans (topped with canned fried onions if you’re lucky), and the occasional marshmallow-topped yams thrown in for good measure.

The first Thanksgiving feast featured a handful of these, but not all of them were even available. Although wild turkey was domestic to the region at the time, it was not the only bird commonly consumed at the time. So while the Plymouth feasters could have potentially been eating turkey, also likely were ducks, geese, and swans. And if it were served at all, turkey would not have been the main meat of the feast, as the Wampanoags were reported to have brought back five deer for roasting, possibly for serving in a stew.

Another thing you may find surprising is that historians report that a large portion of the Thanksgiving dinner most likely consisted of seafood, particularly mussels, which were abundant in New England.

There was no bread-based stuffing, so nuts, onions, and herbs were used instead to bring the desired extra flavor to the meat. Onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and possibly peas were likely to be featured on the menu. Corn, which records suggest was bountiful during the first harvest, may have been served as well, although not in the way that most people enjoy it now. At that time, corn was removed from the cob and ground into cornmeal, which was then cooked and mashed into a dense porridge.

Potatoes would not have been featured on the first Thanksgiving menu since they hadn’t yet arrived in North America. Cranberry sauce would also be absent, since the custom of sweetening cranberries with sugar and serving it with meat didn’t begin until at least 50 years later.

Both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins, probably even at the harvest festival, but they lacked the butter and wheat flour needed to make pie crust. Furthermore, the settlers had not yet built an oven for baking.

Reason for Celebration

Giving thanks was central to the theme and culture of those celebrating the first Thanksgiving. Both before and after every meal, the English would pray and give thanks to God for their food, so it followed that a set-apart celebration to thank the Lord for a successful harvest not only made sense, but was in order. Giving thanks was also a huge part of Native American's daily lives. Prayers of thanks were offered after successful hunting, fishing, or even plant harvest.

Nobody can say for sure if the Plymouth colonists continued celebrating this thanksgiving feast every year afterwards, but the custom of offering thanks to God melded with harvest festivities to become an autumn ritual in New England by the late 1600s.

Like the early settlers, today we also celebrate Thanksgiving to give God thanks for not only what we have materially - food, shelter, and the like -, but also for our friends and family. Though this is the main reason we celebrate Thanksgiving, the holiday has evolved over the years.

November 1775

A group of anti-British Boston patriots issued a proclamation for their Massachusetts colony that declared a "Day of public Thanksgiving" on November 23, 1775. Although this day was about giving thanks, it was also a statement against the British proclaiming their right to be a free nation. This celebration certainly had more to do with the politics of the time than it did with what we consider Thanksgiving today.

December 1777

The next example of a Thanksgiving celebration was two years later to celebrate the defeat of the British in the Battle of Saratoga. December 18 was declared by George Washington, commander-in-chief at the time, to be a day of "Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise." All thirteen colonies celebrated this day, but it was not repeated the next year.

November 1789

Over ten years later, George Washington, now the United State's first president, once again called for a day of thanksgiving and prayer in celebration of their victory in the Revolutionary War. On November 26 Washington observed this day by donating food and money to prisoners and by going to church.

November 1846

Though a day of thanksgiving had been celebrated multiple times since the first feast of 1621, it had not yet been declared a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale sought to remedy that.

In her efforts to have Thanksgiving declared an official holiday, Hale, an author and activist, began a letter-writing campaign that would span over 17 years. She made sure to include Bradford Winslow's manuscript describing the first Thanksgiving in 1621 in order to convince the American government of the day's importance.

October 1863

After years of campaigning, Hale finally achieved her goal when Abraham Lincoln announced the final Thursday of every November as a national holiday of Thanksgiving.

At the time the country was smack in the middle of the Civil War, "“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” read the proclamation, written by Seward, “and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Multiple presidents before Lincoln had issued proclamations encouraging Americans to mark days of thanksgiving for general good fortune as well as for especially significant occurrences, but for the first time it was official.

The Start of Thanksgiving Football

Watching football following a big Thanksgiving meal is a ritual observed by many Americans, and as you may have guessed, this tradition had to start somewhere.

In 1876, American football was still rather new, so when Princeton and Yale faced each other in the first game played on Thanksgiving, there were fewer than 1,000 people in attendance. But in the coming years as football grew more popular, this tradition quickly became a hit among Americans. In 1893, 40,000 fans showed up for the Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving game. By this time in the 1890's, thousands of football games were being held on Thanksgiving, drawing big crowds. The NFL joined in on the tradition in 1934 with the Detroit Lions facing the Chicago Bears, now an annual event.

Macy's Day Parade

The Macy's Day Parade is another tradition among Americans on Thanksgiving Day, with over 25 million viewers this past year. The first parade sponsored by the Macy's department store in New York City on November 27, 1924 was actually originally named the "Christmas Parade." It followed a six-mile route, featuring live animals such as elephants and camels. Over time the parade dropped its Christmas title and became a Thanksgiving tradition.

Date Change in 1939

Since its declaration of national holiday status in 1863, Thanksgiving had been held on the last Thursday of November, but in 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for it to be on the 23rd, a week earlier. Roosevelt was nervous that the Christmas shopping season would be too short and affect the economy if Thanksgiving would be held on November 30th as originally designated, so he signed an executive order in order to lengthen the time in between the two holidays.

This decision wasn’t popular with everyone, however, and many states refused to accept the change. By 1941 Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November. This still differed from the original "last Thursday," except on the occasional year where November has five Thursdays. This decision stuck and is the date we celebrate to this day.

Turkey Pardon

While the annual Thanksgiving Day tradition of the turkey pardon can be considered rather silly, it is nevertheless a fun event that is looked upon fondly by the American public. It was John F. Kennedy who in 1963 first had the idea. "We’ll just let this one grow,” joked JFK. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” Though Kennedy was the first to spare the life of a turkey, it wasn't until 1989 that George W. Bush made it an official White House tradition.

Black Friday

The last tradition we'll discuss is not technically a Thanksgiving tradition, since it’s actually held the following day, but it’s nevertheless become almost synonymous with the holiday of thankfulness. We call it Black Friday.

Every year after everyone's stomachs are stuffed, their football games and parades watched, and extended family departed for their own homes, a segment of the population gets ready for a day of discount shopping. Some stores even open promptly at midnight, with shoppers lining up outside to get their hands on the best deals.

The origins of the unofficial retail holiday is disputed. One account is rooted in the stock market crash and financial crisis of 1869. During this time stores were struggling and operating in the "red," which meant they were losing money. Supposedly this all changed the day after Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers spent so much money on Christmas gifts that the stores once again began making a profit, going - “ into the black” - hence the title of "Black Friday."

Another version of the name's origin tells a completely different story. Every year in Philadelphia, the Army-Navy football game was held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, bringing in huge crowds from the suburbs as well as other tourists. In the 1950's, the police began to call the day Black Friday due to how chaotic the city became. Police had to deal with the huge crowds, traffic, and shoplifters who naturally exploited the disorderly environment.

The term had a negative connotation at this point, but somewhere in the late 1980s, businesses discovered a method to reinvent Black Friday and have it reflect favorably on the day. The story was changed to reflect the previously described "red to black," as well as the assumption that the day following Thanksgiving marked the moment when America's retailers finally earned a profit.

Following this, the one-day sales event has only grown, creating new "retail holidays," including Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is rooted in the beautiful idea of being thankful for what one has and celebrating these things with those closest to you. Throughout the years, that concept has stuck, while the reasons for celebration have grown. The anti-British colonists used it as a way of furthering their political agenda; Washington used the day as a way of celebrating a military victory; and Lincoln made it official in his attempt to unite a divided nation.

The traditions have also evolved from feasting among friends and family, to football games, parades, turkey pardons, and shopping.

Whether you view these things as positive additions or alternatively, cheap and sometimes commercially-driven distractions to the holiday's original intent, you’ll doubtless agree that  Thanksgiving has had a fascinating and ever-changing history!

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