Why We Give Thanks

Discover the tumultuous beginning that lead to today's Thanksgiving traditions.

History, Thanksgiving

Every fourth Thursday in November, we gather together with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that let's us reflect on what we are thankful for in our lives. While we are familiar with the turkey, parades and the start of the Christmas shopping season, the original Thanksgiving feasts were rooted in religion and a struggle to survive harsh elements. Lets look at the history of how this wonderful holiday has evolved over the centuries and be thankful that it is still around to this day!

The Mayflower
Representation of The Mayflower

It is most popularly beloved that Thanksgiving began in 1621, when religious separatists left the old world and celebrated their first harvest in a new land. However, days of giving thanks to one's blessings and harvests were documented in the 17th century well before the Europeans settled in America. This tradition reaches even farther back to ancient times when Egyptians, Greeks and Romans would feast and pay tribute to the gods for bountiful harvests. It also resembles the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, and many traditions could have started there. But it's popularly believed that the Thanksgiving that we know today started in 1620, when the ship The Mayflower left Plymouth, England carrying 102 men, woman and children to the promise of a new land of plenty. They landed near Cape Cod and crossed Massachusetts Bay to establish Plymouth, Massachusetts, even though their original destination was much further south at the Hudson River. Only half survived the brutal winter of 1620, but they learned to survive thanks to an English speaking Pawtuxet Native American named Squanto. He taught them how to catch fish and eel in the rivers, how to cultivate crops and corn, and how to avoid poisonous plants while extracting useful herbs and tree sap. After the first successful corn harvest in 1621, a celebratory feast was held that included the remaining 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Native Americans. Their menu was quite different than ours today and had such items as deer, lobster, geese or swans, and possibly even seal, however it did not include pies or other sweet treats. 

In 1623, a second Day of Thanks feast was held after a religious fasting set forth by Governor William Bradford, which was prompted by a long drought that year. By the end of the century, many days of thanks were held annually throughout the 13 colonies and often occurred after harvests or at the ends of victorious battles or wars. In 1777, the Continental Congress decried that all 13 colonies celebrate a day of thanksgiving that year in honor of the victory over the British at Saratoga, but this was one among many days designated by congress as a day of thanksgiving. In 1789, George Washington issued the first proclamation by the National Government of the United States to hold a national Thanksgiving day as a way to be thankful for the conclusion of the war of Independence and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. This lead to subsequent presidents designating other national days of thanksgiving, but most states did not celebrate an annual Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today. In 1827, the noted writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale launched a one woman campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She wrote numerous editorials and sent tons of letters to politicians, governors, senators, and even presidents, but it took 36 years for her request to come to fruition thanks to Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He saw the unifying potential for the holiday and scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, as a way to "heal the wound of a nation" after the American Civil War. It was celebrated nationally on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up to the third Thursday of November in an attempt to boost retail sales during the Great Depression. However, due to harsh criticism and opposition, Roosevelt signed a bill in 1941 to return Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, which it remains to this day.

In most of America, Thanksgiving has lost its religious significance and now revolves around cooking and sharing a meal with family and friends as a symbol of the gratitude people feel in their lives. While turkey may or may not have been on the Pilgrim's table in 1621, it has become a staple on the American table, along with many other foods and traditions. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie are all common sights at Thanksgiving, and recipes for these were even published by Sara Josepha Hale. Nearly 90% of Americans eat Turkey on Thanksgiving, making it synonymous with the holiday. Other traditions such as volunteering and helping the less fortunate are common on Thanksgiving, but it's things like football and parades that get the most attention. In the 1920's, the National Football league was formed, and the idea for a Thanksgiving Day game was created by the Detroit Lions as a way to boost attendance. Department stores realized the significance of Thanksgiving as the start of the holiday shopping season, and Macy's capitalized on this with the first Thanksgiving day parade in 1924, and has put one on every year since. The day after Thanksgiving became know as Black Friday, and the common yet mostly likely incorrect origin of the term represents when companies would go "into the black" and record a profit after being "in the red" all year, since losses were recorded in red ink. All these traditions have come to form the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it in America today.

Decorating for Thanksgiving has always been a popular tradition, and we love to decorate here at Traditions! One of our favorite things to do is place a cornucopia or turkey figure in the middle of a table and drape a Fall themed garland around it with picks or leaves as embellishment. We always have a figure display out, filled with turkey, pilgrims and Native American Indians. Vintage Thanksgiving postcard boards, pumpkins and gourds are always a fan favorite, and are quick and easy to set up a fantastic display. Be sure to visit our gallery for more ideas and check out our Thanksgiving page by clicking here. From all of us here at Traditions, we hope you have a warm, happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

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