Did Thanksgiving really start with the Pilgrims in 1621?

Celebrating a Lego Thanksgiving. Floodllama photo. CC-BY.

Celebrating a Lego Thanksgiving. Floodllama photo. CC-BY.

Thanksgiving is a popular tradition and official holiday in the United States, where it is popularly believed that the observance comes from a spontaneous 1621 celebration in which Pilgrims and the indigenous Indians celebrated a successful harvest together in a way much like Americans do today.

In fact, thanksgivings were celebrated in what later become the United States before 1621, and the 1621 observance had marked differences from today's traditions.

Fall harvest celebrations go back to the dawn of history, both among the Europeans who colonized the Americans and among the indigenous people who were in the Americas long before. One of the first recorded modern-day Thanksgivings took place in 1619, when British Capt. John Woodlief led settlers in a prayer of thanksgiving upon their arrival in what is now Virginia.

The 1621 event that most U.S. residents know about was actually a three-day affair among the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. Historians aren't sure exactly when it took place, although it was probably around the end of September in keeping with the harvest, certainly not around the end of November. The main meals didn't include pumpkin pie (no ovens) and turkey (although there were wild birds that were eaten, along with venison and probably whatever seafood could be caught). And there was no football (the first broadcast football game didn't happen until 1934). And the black-and-white outfits the pilgrims are often portrayed as wearing? Such clothes were the Pilgrims' Sunday best, and the harvest celebration was a less formal affair.

A fall Thanksgiving became a New English tradition, but it wasn't tied to the fourth Thursday of November until President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation designating that date. Subsequent presidents followed that tradition, but it wasn't until 1941 that the Congress declared Thanksgiving to be an official holiday.

The Thanksgiving of Canada grew out of a similar fall harvest tradition and has no direct connection with the U.S. holiday. It is celebrated on the second Monday of October.


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