Your guide to the history of Thanksgiving

by Hayley Thompson
Ramstein High School

Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family time and reflect on things you are thankful for, as well as to eat delicious food. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday celebrated to mark the successful harvest and the peace between settlers and American Indians in November 1621.

In September 1620, the first settlers arrived on Plymouth Rock. The first winter was tough, with outbreaks of many contagious diseases sweeping through the colony. Only half of the original 102 passengers and crew lived to see spring.
When they moved off the ship in early spring they were met by two English-speaking Native Americans. One, Squanto, would go on to teach the pilgrims to cultivate corn, extract sap from trees, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants.
In November 1621, after the first harvest, Gov. William Bradford, the leader of the pilgrims, organized a three-day long celebratory feast. The Abenaki Tribe, the Indian tribe that had helped them succeed, was invited to celebrate their victory and their mutual friendship.

Thanksgiving was officially accepted as a holiday in 1817 by New York and several other states. While largely popular in the Northern U.S., the southern states remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. Magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1827. Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln consented and established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving has brought many unique traditions and customs to the U.S. More than 90 percent of Americans cook turkeys as part of their Thanksgiving meals. Though now a major staple in the Thanksgiving feast, the turkey cannot be confirmed as a staple in the original holiday. For the pilgrims, the term “turkey” was often associated with all wild fowl. Other traditional foods include cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, stuffing and mashed potatoes.

Parades on Thanksgiving date back to 1924 when Macy’s department store hosted the first New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade. Broadly televised and enormously popular, millions of viewers and spectators turn out for the parade. It is estimated that 2 to 3 million people will line up along the 2.5-mile parade path. The parade features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats and giant character balloons.


Another interesting tradition is the “pardoning” of turkeys. Ever since the mid-20th century, the U.S. president and some state governors “pardon” turkeys. The turkeys that are pardoned are saved from slaughter and are sent to a farm for retirement. The president will normally “pardon” one or two turkeys a year.
The tradition of pulling apart the wishbone dates back to Roman times. The Romans brought the tradition with them to England when they conquered it around 100 A.D. The English, in turn, brought the tradition to North America when they immigrated there centuries later.