Thanksgiving Day, legal holiday observed annually in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November. In Canada, Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday in October. Its origin probably traces to harvest festivals that have been traditional in many parts of the world since ancient times (see Festivals and Feasts). Today Thanksgiving is mainly a celebration of domestic life, centered on the home and family. Most people celebrate Thanksgiving by gathering with family or friends for a holiday feast.
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Public observances of Thanksgiving usually emphasize the holiday’s connection with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving pageants and parades often feature children dressed in Pilgrim costume, complete with bonnets or tall hats, dark clothes, and shoes with large silver-colored buckles.
Many of the images commonly associated with Thanksgiving are derived from much older traditions of celebrating the autumn harvest. For example, the cornucopia (a horn-shaped basket overflowing with fruits and vegetables) is a typical emblem of Thanksgiving abundance that dates to ancient harvest festivals. Many communities also decorate their churches with fruits, flowers, and vegetables at Thanksgiving, much as European communities have for centuries during the autumn harvest season.
In keeping with the idea of celebrating a plentiful harvest, preparing and eating a large meal is a central part of most Thanksgiving celebrations. Thanksgiving menus usually include turkey, bread-crumb stuffing, cranberry sauce, squash, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. These simple foods recall the rustic virtues of the Pilgrims. Additionally, most of these foods are native to North America, emphasizing the natural bounty that greeted early settlers in their adopted homeland. Later groups of immigrants to North America often adapted the traditional holiday menu to fit their own tastes. For example, many Italian American Thanksgiving meals include Italian specialties, such as pasta and wine.
Many Americans digest their holiday meal while watching football games on television. Traditionally, two National Football League (NFL) teams, the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, host games on Thanksgiving Day. High viewership of these holiday games has made football an American Thanksgiving tradition.
Long before Europeans settled in North America, western Europeans observed Harvest Home festivals to celebrate the successful completion of gathering-in the season’s crops. In the British Isles, Lammas Day (Loaf Mass Day), observed on August 1, was often held to celebrate a good wheat harvest. If the wheat crop was disappointing, the holiday was usually canceled.
Another important precursor to the modern Thanksgiving holiday was the custom among English Puritans (see Puritanism) of designating special days of thanksgiving to express gratitude for God’s blessings. These observances were not held regularly; they usually took place only in times of crisis or immediately after a period of misfortune had passed. Puritan thanksgiving ceremonies were serious religious occasions and bore only a passing resemblance to modern Thanksgiving celebrations.
Although there is record of earlier thanksgiving celebrations (most notably in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia), Americans trace their traditional Thanksgiving holiday to one celebrated in 1621. This celebration was held at the Plymouth Colony, now in the state of Massachusetts. The English Pilgrims who had founded the colony marked the occasion by feasting with Native American guests—members of the Wampanoag tribe—who brought gifts of food as a gesture of goodwill. Although this event was an important part of American colonial history, there is no evidence that any of the participants thought of the feast as a thanksgiving celebration. Two years later, during a period of drought, a day of fasting and prayer was changed to one of thanksgiving because rains came during the prayers. Gradually the custom prevailed among New Englanders to annually celebrate Thanksgiving after the harvest.
Colonial governments and, later, state governments took up the Puritan custom of designating thanksgiving days to commemorate various public events. Gradually the tradition of holding annual thanksgiving holidays spread throughout New England and into other states. During the American Revolution (1775-1783) the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving following the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. U.S. president George Washington proclaimed another day of thanksgiving in 1789 in honor of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and many other states soon did the same. Most of the state celebrations were held in November, but not always on the same day.
In the mid-19th century Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, led a movement to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. In 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865), President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day in order to bolster the Union’s morale. After the war, Congress established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but widespread national observance caught on only gradually. Many Southerners saw the new holiday as an attempt to impose Northern customs on them. However, in the late 19th century Thanksgiving’s emphasis on home and family appealed to many people throughout the United States. As a distinctly American holiday, Thanksgiving was also considered an introduction to American values for the millions of immigrants then entering the country.
During the 20th century, as the population of the United States became increasingly urban, new Thanksgiving traditions emerged that catered to city dwellers. The day after Thanksgiving gradually became known as the first day of the Christmas shopping season. To attract customers, large retailers such as Macy’s in New York City and Gimbel’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, began to sponsor lavish parades. By 1934 the Macy’s parade, featuring richly decorated floats and gigantic balloons, attracted more than one million spectators annually.
The custom of watching football games on Thanksgiving Day also evolved during the early decades of the 20th century. As football became increasingly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, many people began to enjoy the holiday at a football stadium. Teams in the National Football League eventually established the tradition of playing nationally televised games on Thanksgiving afternoon.
In 1939 U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt shifted the day of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to one week earlier. Retail merchants had petitioned the president to make the change to allow for an extra week of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many Americans objected to the change in their holiday customs and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month. Roosevelt’s political opponents in Congress also opposed the break with tradition and dubbed the early holiday “Franksgiving.” In May 1941 Roosevelt admitted that he had made a mistake and signed a bill that established the fourth Thursday of November as the national Thanksgiving holiday, which it has been ever since.
Thanksgiving is also a legal holiday in Canada. Because Canada is north of the United States, its harvest comes earlier in the year. Accordingly, the Thanksgiving holiday falls earlier in Canada than in the United States. The Canadian Parliament set aside November 6 for annual Thanksgiving observances in 1879. In 1957 the date was shifted to an even earlier day, the second Monday in October.