The First Thanksgiving, Wikimedia Commons.
The First Thanksgiving, Wikimedia Commons.


Nowadays, Thanksgiving is a national holiday. There’s a parade in New York, and everyone gathers with their families and loved ones to eat turkey, spend time with one another and give thanks. But Thanksgiving hasn’t always been like this.

The first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Pilgrims from Britain came over to the US to settle in 1620 but the journey and the harsh winter meant they lost more than half their people – and the rest were severely malnourished. They were struggling for resources so they formed a relationship with the nearby Wamponoag Indians. They taught the Pilgrims how to fish, hunt, and plant crops, and by Autumn 1621 the Pilgrims had enough resources to feed their people. As a thank you, they invited the Wamponoags for a celebration, which then became the first ever Thanksgiving.

This particular Thanksgiving didn’t include some of the things that are now synonymous with the holiday. They didn’t eat turkey, but instead most likely ate deer, goose, cod, and lobster. Their Thanksgiving was also a three day celebration and included hunting as well as eating.

There is some controversy over Thanksgiving as some think that it celebrates the oppression of the Native Americans by the Europeans, and that the Pilgrims were taking advantage of the Wamponoags. It is widely believed by most Americans that this was just a feast to give thanks – hence Thanksgiving – for their help with their harvest and to celebrate their friendship. However, Native Americans are unhappy with this portrayal being taught to school children as they think it paints a very positive picture of relations between the Europeans and the Native Americans. They believe children should be taught about the controversial history surrounding the settling of Europeans in the present US in more depth, and their treatment of the Native Americans already living there. Some Native Americans even gather on a hill which overlooks Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving each year and call it their ‘National Day of Mourning.’

The Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving again in 1623 after a period of drought ended. Thanksgiving had now caught on in the New England colonies and it was celebrated as a time of giving thanks, but it also included fasting which is wildly different to the Thanksgiving celebrations of today.

Of course, there is some debate as to whether the Pilgrims and the Wamponoags established the first example of Thanksgiving, as in ancient times, people paid tribute to their gods for the harvest and gave thanks. However, the theory of the Pilgrims is the most widely believed and taught.

Thanksgiving did not become popular across the United States until 1789 when George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation. He wanted the people of America to celebrate the winning of the war of Independence and the ratification of the US constitution. Despite this, the idea of Thanksgiving as an annual holiday did not properly come into place until the 19th century.

In 1817, New York and a few other states decided to have an annual Thanksgiving holiday but there was no fixed date as each state had its own particular Thanksgiving day. In fact, a Thanksgiving day was not truly ratified until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving to bring the nation together under the care of God and in the midst of the civil war, to help the nation heal its wounds.

During the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt passed a bill in 1939 which brought Thanksgiving forward a week to the third Thursday of November so retailers had more time for sales in the run up to Christmas and could earn more money. This was met with much opposition and caused controversy as Thanksgiving had then been set as the fourth Thursday in November for a considerable period of time. He had no choice but to pass a bill (however reluctantly) in 1941 to make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November once again.

The introduction of turkey and cranberry sauce as Thanksgiving staples actually predates the settling of the day of Thanksgiving. The author Sarah Josepha Hale – who wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb – campaigned for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1827, and published recipes for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce so that people could create a feast to celebrate.