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MAIN Arrow to Home LifeHolidays Arrow to Thanksgiving Thanksgiving Arrow to History Thanksgiving History

As all American school children know, Thanksgiving history is a merry mix of Mayflower pilgrims, buckled hats, Thanksgiving Day parades, and lots and lots of turkey.

But dig a little dig deeper, and interesting surprises await.

Just to set the record straight, the following is a true account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 along with fun facts about the modern holiday to amaze your friends and family this Thanksgiving Day...


The First Thanksgiving - Did You Know?

The first Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth last three days and included party games, Indian dances, shooting contests, songs and story telling.

• Since the early colonists had never heard of a fork, the first Thanksgiving meal was mostly eaten hand-to-mouth.

• Buckled hats, which didn't become fashionable until decades later, weren't worn by the early pilgrims. (They probably would have considered them too frilly, anyway.)

• Historical documents show that pilgrims enjoyed a feast of Thanksgiving "fowl", but there is no mention of turkey being on the menu.

• Men were the only ones to actually partake in the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth. The women and children cooked and served.


The True Story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth

In the fall of 1621, Mayflower pilgrims met with of the local Indians to prepare a feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The theme of the celebration was to express thanks for surviving a long, cold winter during which many of America's first immigrants did not survive.

The guest list included Plymouth colony leader, Miles Standish, and his second-in-command John Alden. Also in attendance were Indian leader Massasoit and about 90 members of his tribe, the Wampanoags.

The feast included fowl, venison, shellfish, pumpkin, corn, and wild berries. The entire celebration, from beginning to end, lasted three days.


Thanksgiving Through the Years

Abe Lincoln
In the midst of the Civil War, Abe Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Informal Thanksgiving Days remained a popular way to celebrate the Autumn harvest locally, but a national holiday? That wouldn't happen until the 19th century.

That's when Sarah Josepha Hale (side note: she was the author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb) -- began a campaign to make it happen almost single-handedly.

Spanning four presidents, the push to make Thanksgiving a national holiday finally reached the desk of President Abraham Lincoln. And it was Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, who declared that the holiday would be observed forever after nationwide on every fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated that way every year since. That is, until 1940 -- when the holiday was pushed back a week earlier by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Depression-hit businesses increase pre-Christmas sales.

Although well-intentioned, the widely unpopular decision caused an uproar among Republicans who declared "Franksgiving" to be an abomination. Despite bad economic times, Thanksgiving was pushed forward again the following year to its traditional fourth week in November.

Freedom from Want, by Norman Rockwell
During the early days of World War II, Norman Rockwell painted his famous "The Four Freedoms". Above,
an American family in "Freedom From Want" sits down to a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings.


A Modern Thanksgiving

first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924
An ad announcing the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924.

Of course, the commercialization of Thanksgiving continued despite the love of long-held traditions. The staging of Thanksgiving parades was first begun in 1924, for example, to increase Christmas toy sales.

Today, Thanksgiving Day football games begin at noon followed by the rapid clearing of Thanksgiving dishes by 4PM in a mad rush to attend early Black Friday sales.

It's little wonder, then, that Thanksgiving marks the start of the "Holy Season of Consumerism".

That said, however, one of the most popular search terms in the Internet Age during Thanksgiving week remains -- surprise -- Thanksgiving prayers along with traditional recipes for roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

So no matter what retailers and the cynics have to say -- Thanksgiving, it seems, is here to stay.

And it's good to know that American families can sit still down to a Thanksgiving Day feast to clasp hands, bow their heads, and give thanks for life's many bounties.

Just like pilgrims in days of old.


More about Thanksgiving history around the Web:

The First Thanksgiving - Top-notch and entertaining of the day from the History Channel, featuring the first Thanksgiving and related myths, fictional "first person" accounts, video presentation, related links & resources.

Thanksgiving Remembered - From the Library of Congress with Thanksgiving through the ages told in tales, stories, and old photos plus a complete Thanksgiving historical timeline and related resources.

The History of Thanksgiving and Its Celebrations - Nice overview of Thanksgiving traditions through the ages and across cultures, beginning with the Greeks on up to modern times.


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