The Meaning and Origin of Thanksgiving

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Many of us have had a familiar question posed to us as we think of Thanksgiving dishes to serve. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? We all know Thanksgiving is a time for pecan pie and turkey, but for children or foreigners, Thanksgiving is just as strange as any other holiday. The origins of Thanksgiving are a little strange, even though we all know about Thanksgiving from what we’re taught in grade school. The specific details of the first Thanksgiving dinner weren’t written down and cameras weren’t invented by then. So, what happened at the first Thanksgiving dinner? 

First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
First Thanksgiving at Plymouth | Attribution: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [Public domain]

The Story Behind Thanksgiving

William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth colony at the time, wrote in his manuscripts that the fall of 1621 was a good period for the pilgrims. The Wampanoag natives of the area taught many things to the pilgrims, including strategies for farming, fishing, and hunting. With help from the Native Americans, they had a good harvest season. To celebrate, a meal was planned for both the Native Americans and the pilgrims to share together. There was some sort of cooked bird dish, but pies weren’t mentioned at all.

The tensions between the settlers and natives are well known to anyone who studied a little American history. A peaceful dinner shared between rival factions may seem a little strange, even unbelievable. Yet, having two clashing cultures sit down and eat together is a great moment in our country’s history. That spirit of unity will eventually become the tradition of thanksgiving that we know today.

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How did Thanksgiving become an official holiday?

Bradford’s manuscripts were not published for a long time. The records of the first Thanksgiving dinner were unknown to the public, so there wasn’t any movement towards it. There are reports that George Washington called for a national thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November 1789, but it still wasn’t an official holiday by then.

In the 1800s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, got her hands on Bradford’s diary. It had been passed down through generations. She was allegedly so stirred by the first Thanksgiving dinner that she started writing to several presidents. She had written several letters to five American presidents to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. Abraham Lincoln was the one who responded.

Amidst the Civil War, Lincoln thought that a celebration of the cooperation of two different cultures was just the thing to mend the divided country. In 1863, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday and assigned it to the last Thursday of November, following Washington’s idea.

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Why is Thanksgiving held on the fourth Thursday of November?

There’s a little more to the story than that.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November. He did this because while November usually has four Thursdays, moving the celebration up a week when November has five Thursdays would be good for the economy. 

Since then, it has been a regular tradition in American homes to celebrate Thanksgiving with a dinner among friends and family on the fourth Thursday of November. As for the economy, the big boost in sales for apple pie ingredients, cranberry sauce, and potatoes for mashing is great for perking up markets. Even if it doesn’t, Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are sure to get things rolling.

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