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The History Of Thanksgiving Day

While Thanksgiving Day is one of the biggest events in the American calendar, for us Britons it's always been a little bit of a mystery.

The most exposure many of us get to the holiday is by watching US television series' Thanksgiving-themed episodes - and even those tend to leave us in the dark.

From how the celebration came about to why the President pardons a turkey, here is everything you need to know about the American holiday.

The history of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day can be traced back to the 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the religious refugees from England known popularly as the Pilgrims invited the local Native Americans to a harvest feast after a particularly successful growing season.

The previous year's harvests had failed and in the winter of 1620, half of the pilgrims had starved to death. Luckily for the rest, members of the local Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, beans and squash (the Three Sisters); catch fish, and collect seafood.

There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving, but it's clear that turkey was not on the menu. The three-day feast included goose, lobster, cod and deer.

'The National Thanksgiving Proclamation' was the first formal proclamation of Thanksgiving in America. George Washington, the first president of the United States,  made this proclamation on Oct 3, 1789.

Then in 1846, author Sarah Josepha Hale waged a one-woman campaign for Thanksgiving to be recognised as a truly national holiday.

In the US the day had previously been celebrated only in New England and was largely unknown in the American South. All the other states scheduled their own Thanksgiving holidays at different times, some as early as October and others as late as January.

Hale's advocacy for the national holiday lasted 17 years and four presidencies before the letter she wrote to Lincoln was successful. In 1863 at the height of the Civil War he supported legislation which established a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.

Lincoln perhaps wanted the date to tie in with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on Nov 21, 1620. Although we now use the Gregorian calendar. In 1621 the date would have been Nov 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar.

So Hale finally got her wish. She is perhaps now better known, though, for writing the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'.

In 1939, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to try and give a boost to retailers before Christmas during the Great Depression.

Several states followed FDR's lead but 16 states refused the holiday shift, leaving the country with rival Thanksgivings. FDR changed his mind after coming under pressure from Congress and in 1941, the a resolution was passed returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

Atlantic City mayor Thomas D. Taggart later described the Thanksgiving holiday from 1939–1941 as "Franksgiving".

Turkey, pies and stuffing

There are several potential reasons Americans eat turkey on the big day: one claims that the pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote a letter about that now-famous meal in 1621 which mentioned a turkey hunt before the dinner.

Another theory says the choice of turkey was inspired by Queen Elizabeth I who was eating dinner when she heard that Spanish ships had sunk on their way to attack England. She was so thrilled with the news she ordered another goose be served. Some claim early US settlers roasted turkeys as they were inspired by her actions.

Others say that as wild turkeys are native to North America, they were a natural choice for early settlers.

When European settlers encountered turkeys for the first time in the early 1500s, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl. Since this group of birds were thought to come from Turkey, the North American bird was dubbed 'turkey fowl'.

This later became shortened to 'turkey' and entered the vernacular. The English navigator William Strickland, who introduced the turkey into England in 1550, was granted a coat of arms which included a "turkey-cock in his pride proper".

So what comprises the classic Thanksgiving dish?

Turkey: and/or ham, goose and duck or turduken (a spatchcocked combo of three whole birds!)

Stuffing (also known as dressing): a mix of bread cubes, chopped celery, carrots, onions and sage stuffed inside the turkey for roasting. Chestnuts, chopped bacon or sausage, and raisins or apples are also sometimes included in the stuffing.

Pies: pumpkin pies are most common, but pecan, apple, sweet potato and mincemeat pies are also quite popular.

A turkey pardon? 

The President of the United States is presented with a turkey by the National Turkey Federation. The bird is then "pardoned" and allowed to live out the rest of its natural life.

When is it happening this year? 

President Donald Trump carried out the US tradition on Tuesday November 26, 2019. This year's birds were called Bread and Butter.

How did this tradition start? 

Dating back to at least 1947, US presidents were gifted with turkeys at Thanksgiving. However, these turkeys were generally eaten.

Ronald Reagan was the first president to "pardon" a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987. His successor, George HW Bush, made the pardoning ceremony into a White House tradition from 1989 onwards.

How is the turkey chosen? 

80 turkeys are randomly chosen at birth, with the field finally being narrowed to the two largest and best-behaved birds. Both birds are then spared by the President.

What happens to the turkeys afterwards? 

Since 2013, both fortunate birds are sent to live at Morven Park, Virginia USA.

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