7 things you might not know about the history of Thanksgiving

Why does America celebrate Thanksgiving and when was the first Thanksgiving? Was turkey always on the menu? Here, we bring you the facts about the history of Thanksgiving…

The First Thanksgiving in 1621, after a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme; screen print, 1932. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)


1

The first Thanksgiving

Tradition has it that the first Thanksgiving – a celebration of good harvest – took place in 1621, when English Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts shared a meal with their Native American neighbours. However, historian Michael Gannon argues that the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America actually took place half a century earlier, in Florida.

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On 8 September 1565, he says, following a religious service, Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local native tribe.

A joint Franco-Native Indian raid left 56 residents of Deerfield, a small township in north-western Massachusetts, dead. (Alamy)

2

A public holiday

According to the US National Archives, on 28 September 1789 the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking that the president of the United States recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving. A few days later, George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday 26 November 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” – the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.

The dates of Thanksgiving celebrations varied as subsequent presidents came and went, and it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation – in the midst of the Civil War – that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.

President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland, 1 October 1862. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

3

Changing dates

The US National Archives says that in 1939, with the last Thursday in November falling on the last day of the month, Franklin D Roosevelt became concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen economic recovery. He therefore issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November.

Some 32 states consequently issued similar proclamations, but 16 states refused to accept the change. As a result, for two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving.

To end the confusion, on 6 October 1941 Congress set a fixed date for the holiday: it passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day.

American president Franklin D Roosevelt

4

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is televised nationally on NBC, has been marching since 1924. That year, the department store’s president, Herbert Strauss, organised a six-mile procession from Harlem to the Macy’s store in Herald Square. The parade featured animals – including elephants – from the Central Park Zoo, and was nearly three times as long as it is today: for the purposes of television filming, the route was later reduced to 2.5 miles.

Balloons float down Broadway in the 13th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 25 November 1937. (Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Balloons float down Broadway in the 13th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 25 November 1937. (Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
5

Pass the venison?

While turkey is today the bird of choice for Thanksgiving dinners across the United States, this was not always the case: according to History.com, for the first ever Thanksgiving in 1621 the Indians killed five deer as a gift for the colonists, meaning venison would most likely have been the dish of the day.

Vintage illustration of a husband and wife pulling the wishbone of a turkey for good luck at Thanksgiving dinner; screen print, 1942. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Vintage illustration of a husband and wife pulling the wishbone of a turkey for good luck at Thanksgiving dinner; screen print, 1942. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
6

The pardoned turkey

Each Thanksgiving, the president of the United States ‘pardons’ a hand-selected turkey, sending it to a farm where it lives out the rest of its days. But, contrary to popular belief, President George HW Bush was not in 1989 the first president to grant such a pardon.

According to the White House, the tradition dates to Lincoln’s days, when his son Tad begged him to write a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table, arguing it had as much a right to live as anyone. Lincoln complied, and the turkey lived.

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President Ronald Reagan with a Thanksgiving turkey and farmer John Holden and his wife, who raised the bird, November 1985. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
7

Watching football

Each Thanksgiving, millions of Americans tune in to watch the Detroit Lions play American Football. This tradition dates to 1934, when the team took on the undefeated, defending World Champion Chicago Bears of George Halas. Despite losing the inaugural game, since then the Lions have played football every Thanksgiving except between 1939 and 1944.

A painting depicting George Washington with British soldiers at Yorktown. In the final battle of the war at the siege of Yorktown, writes Jem Duducu, there were nearlyas many French soldiers and sailors as American rebels fighting for colonial independence. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Emma Mason is Digital Editor at HistoryExtra.com

To read more American history, click here.

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This article was first published by History Extra in 2014