Thanksgiving is traditionally a harvest festival.
Thanksgiving Day is an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada. In the US Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, while in Canada it is the second Monday in October. Thanksgiving has deep roots in religious tradition, but nowadays it is primarily celebrated as a secular holiday.
The first American Thanksgiving probably took place in New England. It was celebrated by the Pilgrim settlers who established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620.
The founding of this feast dates back to September 1620, when a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists and other individuals lured by the promise of land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor and began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth, Massachusetts, giving it the same name as the town they departed from.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring.
In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received a welcoming visit from the Native American Indians. The Indians taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.
The pilgrims forged an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
At harvest time in the winter of 1621, they were very thankful that they had a good crop of corn to eat during the coming winter. They thanked God and the Wampanoags for teaching them.
It was in November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, that Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast among Pilgrims and Indians which lasted for three days, and so Thanksgiving was born.
The Thanksgiving holiday became a national phenomenon during the Civil War. In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln began a tradition that Americans know well today, declaring that a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” would be observed on the last Thursday of November.
In the United States, Thanksgiving was observed on various dates but by the mid 20th century, most states celebrated on the last Thursday in November. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law making Thanksgiving a national holiday and settling it to the 4th Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving is regarded as being the beginning of the fall–winter holiday season, along with Christmas and the New Year, in American culture.
Today families gather together and many say prayers of thanks for the year’s blessings. In many homes a festive dinner of roast turkey and dressing is served.