Think the official celebration of Thanksgiving dates back to the feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in Massachusetts back in 1621? You’re off by 242 years.
It is true that the Pilgrims feasted for three days in November 1621, celebrating their first successful harvest after landing at present-day Plymouth on the Mayflower in late 1620. On hand for the feast were 53 Pilgrims and 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe.
But the first documented thanksgiving feasts in territory currently belonging to the United States were enjoyed by Spaniards in the 16th century, and by settlers in Virginia beginning in 1607.
George Washington, then leader of the American forces fighting for independence from England, proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day in December 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
Then as president on Oct. 3, 1789, Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States, calling for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed.”
Washington proclaimed another Thanksgiving in 1795.
But the driving force behind the adoption of Thanksgiving as an official national holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, a poet, novelist, and magazine editor who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Before Hale, Thanksgiving was celebrated only in New England. Hale began advocating for an official national Thanksgiving Day in 1846, writing letters to five presidents. The first four ignored her entreaties. But in 1863, the fifth — Abraham Lincoln, then in the middle of the Civil War — proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November, and the holiday has been observed annually ever since.
In 1939, a year when November had five Thursdays, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with tradition and declared that the fourth Thursday in November, and not the last Thursday, would be Thanksgiving Day.
Republicans protested, calling the change an affront to Lincoln, and people began referring to Nov. 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and Nov. 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving.”
Twenty-three states went along with Roosevelt’s recommendation, 22 did not, and some — including Texas — took both days as government holidays.
On Dec. 26, 1941, FDR signed a bill for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the date as the fourth Thursday in November.
The holiday is often referred to as “Turkey Day,” but the original feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims most likely did not include the bird.
Mayflower colonist William Bradford wrote that “there was great store of wild turkeys” in the Plymouth area. But food historian Kathleen Curtin asserts that no turkeys were eaten on that day.
According to Curtin, author of the book “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from the Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie,” the meal probably included deer. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote that five deer were killed for the feast along with fish, shellfish, and wild game.
There were also native fruits, including melons, grapes, and cranberries, and vegetables including leeks, wild onions, beans, squash, and possibly carrots, turnips, cabbage, and parsnips.
Curtin says the food was probably boiled, and pumpkin was stewed rather than baked into a pie.
There is still debate over when the turkey made its first appearance at a Thanksgiving meal, but the tradition of serving turkey for Thanksgiving precedes Lincoln's nationalization of the holiday in 1863.
Footnote: Football has been an integral part of Thanksgiving for more than 125 years. The University of Michigan played its first Turkey Day game in 1885, and professional football teams played on that day as long ago as the 1890s. NFL teams have played on Thanksgiving Day since the league was founded in 1920.
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