10 Things You Should Understand About The Origin Of Thanksgiving

10 Things You Should Know about the Origins of Thanksgiving
10 Things You Should Know about the Origins of Thanksgiving

10 Things You Should Understand About The Origin Of Thanksgiving

We learn about this most important of American holidays even before we are old enough to walk.  Gathering the family together over a feast of turkey, pumpkin pie and other delicacies is one of the defining features of American life.  As we grow older we learn about the holiday from our parents and from our schools.  We learn that Thanksgiving dates back to the earliest days of our nation, indeed to the days before we were even a nation.  We learn that the first ever Thanksgiving took place to celebrate the first harvest at Plymouth on the fourth Thursday of November 1621 when Pilgrims sat down with the Native Peoples who had helped them to survive their difficult first year.  How much of this comforting and traditional story is actually true?  When we look back at the historical facts is there really an unbroken timeline from the first Thanksgiving to today?  Was the first Thanksgiving even considered a Thanksgiving by those who sat down to the feast and did they eat the same types of food that we eat today?

Our modern traditions tend to gloss over some of the more uncomfortable (and interesting) aspects of the origins of Thanksgiving in favor of creating a comforting story.  Here are 10 things you really should know about the origins of Thanksgiving.

10The First Thanksgiving Was A Harvest Festival Not A Thanksgiving

The original gathering was a harvest celebration.

The celebration that we now think of as the First Thanksgiving was not, in fact, a thanksgiving as the early settlers would have defined the term.  To them a thanksgiving was a purely and exclusively religious affair where settlers would congregate in church to pray, listen to sermons and sing psalms.  They were not joyous occasions and were rarely planned in advance (as that would have been seen as presuming to know the mind of God).  It would have been considered anathema to enjoy a feast or joyous celebrations on a proper day of thanksgiving.

The celebration in 1621 was a very different affair, rather than being seen as a thanksgiving the settlers would have considered it a celebration of a bountiful harvest.  Such celebrations were common and indeed traditional in the rural English communities from which many of them had originated.  The non-religious nature of the event also allowed representatives of friendly native tribes to attend.  It would have been unthinkable for a ‘heathen’ to participate in a religious event no matter how helpful or friendly they were.

9What We Consider the First ‘Thanksgiving’ Was Not The First Event Of Its Kind

Not 1st!

Whether we call it a Thanksgiving Feast or a Harvest Festival (see above), the celebration in 1621 was not the first event of its kind.  Before the arrival of European settlers native tribes such as the Cherokee had a long and established tradition of harvest celebrations.  When the European settlers arrived they brought their own traditions with them.  Religious thanksgiving services were common amongst all the early settlers.  The first known service in North America actually took place in Newfoundland, Canada in May 1578.  The first known service in what is now the United States took place in Maine in 1607 (although Texas claims that conquistadores hosted the earliest Thanksgiving on American soil when they sat down to eat with local tribes near what is now El Paso).  Early settlers in Virginia even held an annual Thanksgiving to celebrate their arrival and the foundation of the colony but they were not on good terms with local Indian tribes and an uprising put paid to further organized celebrations.

The 1621 event in Plymouth was not repeated the following year.  In 1623 the Colony was suffering from a bad drought and they held a thanksgiving service to pray for rain.  Their devotions were rewarded when rain did come followed by a number of supply ships.  The Colony then celebrated this good news with both a religious thanksgiving service and a social event.  After this there were ad hoc thanksgiving celebrations which colonies organized at a local level.  It would be many years before the celebration would be designated as a national holiday.

8The First Thanksgiving Was Not Celebrated With Turkey And Pumpkin Pie

No pumpkin pie!! The horror!

Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without the turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  We like to think that the ‘traditional’ food we eat as our celebratory feast is a culinary link back to the early settlers.  It is a romantic thought but no more than that.

Wild turkeys were a staple part of the diet of the early settlers but the term ‘turkey’ was also used to mean wild geese or ducks.  At the First Thanksgiving four men were instructed to go ‘fowling’ to find meat for the feast but we do not know what type of birds they brought back.  The early celebrants certainly did enjoy pumpkin but they almost certainly ate it boiled rather than in a pie as they had no flour or butter to make pastry.  Very few of the settlers would have eaten potatoes, they were not cultivated because they were unpopular and some even considered them poisonous.    So what did they eat? Without flour for wheaten bread it is likely that they made a form of corn bread, they would have had an ample supply of fish and berries (including cranberries although a lack of sugar meant they would not have been made into an equivalent of the sauce we eat today) would have been plentiful on the bushes in the area surrounding the settlement.  It is likely that they were also able to enjoy fruits, seafood and venison.

So why does our Thanksgiving table look so different to the food eaten at the ‘First Thanksgiving’? In the Mid 19th Century Sarah Josepha Hale (the author of the song Mary had a Little Lamb) started to campaign for a thanksgiving holiday, she got her wish in 1863 when President Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving day.  What we eat today owes its origins to the food that was in fashion at that time.  All the foods are, however, native to the Americas and therefore eminently suitable for a day of national celebration.

7The Settlers Who Celebrated The ‘First Thanksgiving’ Were Not Pilgrims

No pilgrims! What?

When we talk about the origins of Thanksgiving we often refer to the settlers involved in the 1621 feast as Pilgrims.  Foreigners may often refer to the early settlers as Puritans.  The truth is rather more complex.

The American colonies were seen by many, in the early days as a haven from persecution, a place where the faithful could observe their religion in their own way free of interference from others.  In that sense many of the early settlers were ‘pilgrims’ in that they traveled for a religious purpose.  Those groups that we now refer to as ‘Pilgrims’ were separatists, they wanted to be left alone but they were also ready to accept that they would practice their religion separate from the established Church of England which was, they believed, not strict enough, had too many tendencies towards Catholicism and did not enforce a holy enough life on its followers..

The Puritans, however, were a very different group of people.  They saw themselves as communicant members of the Church of England, believed fervently that the Church had lost its way and was in need of reform along the lines they proposed.

By these modern definitions about half of the settlers in Plymouth were Pilgrims (the other half were secular colonists known as ‘Strangers’), their very desire to live a ‘separate’ life allowed them to build a (shaky) relationship with the local tribes, they simply did not feel obliged to impose their beliefs on them.  They did not, however, call themselves Pilgrims.  In so far as they referred to themselves as anything it would have been ‘saints’.   So why are these early settlers now referred to as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’?  The term appears to originate in a book The History of Plimoth Plantation written by William Bradford, a passenger on the Mayflower, but not published until 1856 in which he refers to Hebrews xi13-16 ‘They knew they were pilgrims’  in reference to the decision to move the ‘saints’ church from Leiden in the Netherlands (where they had settled after leaving England) to the Americas.

6The Settlers Wore Somber Black Clothes At The Feast

Black was in!

Go along to almost any school play depicting the history of Thanksgiving and you will see children dressed in black and wearing large hats decorated with buckles.  The same depiction is often seen in cartoons, paintings and other media.  It is an endearing and enduring image but it is not accurate.

In reality black dye was expensive to apply and difficult to maintain so black clothes were reserved for formal, Sunday wearOf course when Europeans of the time were able to invest money in the luxury of having a portrait painted they would have worn their very best clothes for the event.  After all if you were only ever going to have one picture of yourself you would want to look as good (and respectable) as possible.  As far as everyday clothes went a lot of the cloth used to make them would not have been dyed at all and therefore would have been a natural light grey or off white.  Other cloth would have been dyed with whatever natural dye agents were available around the colony.  Typical colors would have included reds, browns and yellows.  Some would have been dyed blue.

The early settlers did not have time to paint pictures of their daily life.  Many of the artistic renderings of the time are actually from the 19th century.  Artists took the clothing that they knew (from formal portraits contemporary to the settlers), combined it with a version of the clothing that was popular at the time (black suits for gentlemen).  Painters of the time often used buckles as an easy shorthand to signal that the painting showed the early settlers.  Buckles were not common at the time of the ‘first thanksgiving’ and the early settlers would not have been able to afford such expensive embellishments.

5The Settlers Almost Certainly Did Not Invite The Local Tribes To The Feast

In the popular mythology of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ we learn that the settlers shared their feast with their native friends as a means of thanking them for the help they had been given over the previous year.  The truth appears to be somewhat less savory.

While the settlers and the local tribes had a tenuous acceptance of each other’s presence the relationship was not warm. The oral history of the Wampanoag (the nearby tribe) tells that when the settler men tasked with gathering fowl for the feast started to shoot, the Wampanoag thought it was possible that the settlers were preparing to raid them or even start a war.  The tribe decided to investigate and a large group of 90 men went to see what was going on.  When they found that the settlers were celebrating rather than preparing for a fight they decided to join in.  They went hunting and brought deer back to the feast.  The Manataka Indian Council claim that it is likely that, rather than the settlers feeding the native tribesmen, that the Wampanoag actually provided the majority of the food.

Of course oral history is notoriously inaccurate and we should not attribute any more accuracy to the Wampanoag accounts than we do to those of the settlers.  It is, however, interesting to see another perspective.

4The ‘First Thanksgiving’ Was Not A Family Friendly Affair

They got their drink on.

These days Thanksgiving is seen as the ultimate family holiday.  People scattered all over the country make great efforts to get ‘home’ and spend the special day with loved ones.  It is therefore comforting to think that this family aspect to the celebration is something that has been a part of Thanksgiving from the start.  Sadly a thorough examination of what we know about the ‘First Thanksgiving’, both from the Wampanoag oral histories and the sketchy accounts of the first settlers give rise to the suspicion that the ‘inaugural’ event was anything but family friendly.

Firstly the celebration went on for three days.  The settlers may not have been quite the austere and aesthetic individuals we like to think they were (yes they prayed a lot but they also drank beer and had fun) but a three day celebration would be pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable to ‘saints’.  It seems more likely that the event was a protracted negotiation between the settlers and the Wampanoag.  The contemporary sources that do exist make no mention of women (native or settler) attending the celebration although it is, of course, likely that women were involved in preparing the meal.

3Thanksgiving Did Not Become An Official Holiday Until 1941

1941 a year that will live in infamy for turkeys

As we have already mentioned (see above), Thanksgiving was not a national holiday in the early years of our nation.  A version was celebrated by individual communities on an ad hoc basis.  From about 1774 the Continental Confederation Congress issued several decrees to order national days of ‘prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving’, a practice continued by the early Presidents (with the exception of President Jefferson who disapproved).  The honor of proclaiming the first Thanksgiving of the United States of America fell to President Washington in 1789.

These federal holidays had fallen out of favor by the early 19th Century (although individual states still held thanksgivings) and several campaigners, Sarah Josepha Hale amongst them, lobbied the Government for an official national celebration.   By 1863 President Lincoln, facing a country fractured by war, realized that a national celebration of unity would be a powerful boost to morale.  He declared two holidays that year, one celebrated the victory at Gettysburg and another, scheduled for the last Thursday in November, celebrated the supposed events of 1621.  President Lincoln and his successors declared the holiday every year thereafter, usually set for the last Thursday in November.  It was only in 1941 that Congress finally passed a resolution to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday falling on the fourth Thursday of November.

2President Roosevelt Tried To Change The Date Of Thanksgiving


For those of us born after the Second World War Thanksgiving has always been held on the fourth Thursday of November.  It is almost impossible to think that it could be held at any other time.  Before the War, however, Thanksgiving had always been held on the final Thursday (either the fourth or the fifth depending on the calendar).  In 1939 President Roosevelt was faced with a 5 Thursday November, a country recovering from the Great Depression and pressure from retailers to extend the Christmas shopping season in order to drive up profits.  As such he moved Thanksgiving to the penultimate Thursday rather than the last one.  The move was not popular and became a party political issue.  Republicans claimed the change was an insult to President Lincoln and the earlier Thanksgiving was widely referred to as ‘Franksgiving’.

By this time the modern traditions of sports games had been set and many teams were unable to change their schedules to fit in with the new holiday.  The states were split on the issue, half refused to celebrate on the new date, while the other half did.  Texas and Colorado decided to have it both ways and celebrated two Thanksgivings.  The debacle was only resolved when Congress split the difference and declared that the holiday would take place on the fourth Thursday whether it was the last or not  Even then, not everyone was happy; Texas continued to celebrate a double Thanksgiving on 5 Thursday Novembers as late as 1956..

1Turkey Pardons Are A Very Modern Invention

Turkey pardons. New.

Turkey pardoning is probably the most whimsical aspect of this favorite of national holidays.  It is a lovely idea, while most Turkeys are meeting their end on the tables of Americans one, at least, will live out his days in comfort.  The practice is reported to date back to President Lincoln, his son became fond of the bird destined to be Christmas dinner and the kind hearted President gave the bird a reprieve.  He did not, however, extend the same clemency to any Thanksgiving birds.

The tradition of Thanksgiving Turkey pardoning has its roots in 1947 when the National Turkey Federation started a practice of gifting the President with two dressed and one live turkey.  In 1963 President Kennedy pardoned a turkey when he sent it back to the Turkey Farm.  President Nixon also showed a kind hearted side and sent all of his turkeys to a petting zoo.  It was not until 1987 that a President actually pardoned a Turkey.  When President Reagan was asked whether there would be any pardons given to those involved in Iran-Contra he dodged what would otherwise have been a difficult and charged question by saying he would offer one to the Turkey.  It was his successor, President HW Bush that formalized the event in 1989.  All Presidents since then have taken part in the annual turkey pardon, an event that has grown year on year to become something of a social media and public relations frenzy.


So there we have it, 10 things you may not have known about Thanksgiving but probably should.

Are the details really important?  Whether the initial event took place in Texas or Newfoundland, Plymouth or Jamestown surely does not matter.  Nor is it important that we eat the same food as our forebears.  After all they did not sit down to watch the game on TV or arrange lavish Thanksgiving parades either.  Indeed the myth of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ served its main purpose, to bring people together and boost morale at a time of devastating war.  The story was, in many ways, propaganda for the Union.

But look closer and you realize it does matter.  As the years have gone by we have become increasingly aware of the appalling manner in which the settlers (and their descendants) treated the native tribes.  The Plymouth Brethren, for example, are reputed to have got the corn they used for the first harvest from robbing the Wampanoag caches and many pretty trinkets from native graves.

The peace between the settlers and the Wampanoags was one mutual unease and necessity and they sat down together, not as friends but rather as diplomats working out what they could do for each other.  It was not to last, Metacomet, the son of Massoit, the Wampanoag leader who led the native attendees at the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was the man who launched the bloody King Philip’s war of 1675.  The myth of Thanksgiving is nothing more than a cozy fabrication.

Our modern celebration is a very different holiday to the history it purports to honor.  It is a holiday to celebrate family, togetherness, bounty.  We should see it and enjoy it for what it is rather than seeking to clothe it in a false history.  To do so does us, our children and our forebears no favors.