Thanksgiving Day, annual national holiday in theUnited StatesandCanadacelebrating theharvestand other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvestfeastshared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) ofPlymouthand theWampanoag people. The Americanholidayis particularly rich inlegendand symbolism, and the traditional fare of the Thanksgiving meal typically includesturkey, bread stuffing,potatoes,cranberries, andpumpkinpie. With respect to vehicular travel, the holiday is often the busiest of the year, as family members gather with one another.
Plymouth’s Thanksgiving began with a few colonists going out “fowling,” possibly for turkeys but more probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks, since they “in one day killed as much as…served the company almost a week.” Next, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance at the settlement’s gate, doubtlessly unnerving the 50 or so colonists. Nevertheless, over the next few days the two groups socialized without incident. The Wampanoag contributedvenisonto the feast, which included the fowl and probablyfish,eels,shellfish, stews,vegetables, andbeer. Since Plymouth had few buildings and manufactured goods, most people ate outside while sitting on the ground or onbarrelswith plates on their laps. The men firedguns, ran races, and drankliquor, struggling to speak in broken English and Wampanoag. This was a rather disorderly affair, but it sealed a treaty between the two groups that lasted untilKing Philip’s War(1675–76), in which hundreds of colonists and thousands ofNative Americanslost their lives.
TheNew Englandcolonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “Thanksgivings,” days ofprayerthanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. The U.S.Continental Congressproclaimed a national Thanksgiving upon the enactment of the Constitution, for example. Yet, after 1798, the newU.S. Congressleft Thanksgiving declarations to the states; some objected to the national government’s involvement in a religious observance, Southerners were slow to adopt a New England custom, and others took offense over the day’s being used to hold partisan speeches and parades. A national Thanksgiving Day seemed more like a lightning rod for controversy than a unifying force.
Thanksgiving Day did not become an official holiday until Northerners dominated the federalgovernment. While sectional tensions prevailed in the mid-19th century, the editor of the popularmagazineGodey’s Lady’s Book,Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned for a national Thanksgiving Day to promote unity. She finally won the support of PresidentAbraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, during theCivil War, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26.
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The holiday was annually proclaimed by every president thereafter, and the date chosen, with few exceptions, was the last Thursday in November. PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt, however, attempted to extend theChristmasshopping season, which generally begins with the Thanksgiving holiday, and to boost the economy by moving the date back a week, to the third week inNovember. But not all states complied, and, after a joint resolution ofCongressin 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation in 1942 designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.
As the country became more urban and family members began to live farther apart, Thanksgiving became a time to gather together. The holiday moved away from its religious roots to allow immigrants of every background to participate in a common tradition. Thanksgiving Dayfootballgames, beginning withYaleversusPrincetonin 1876, enabled fans to add some rowdiness to the holiday. In the late 1800s parades of costumed revelers became common. In 1920 Gimbel’sdepartment storein Philadelphia staged a parade of about 50 people withSanta Clausat the rear of the procession. Since 1924 the annual Macy’s parade inNew York Cityhas continued the tradition, with hugeballoonssince 1927. The holiday associated with Pilgrims and Native Americans has come to symbolize interculturalpeace, America’s opportunity for newcomers, and the sanctity of home and family.
Days of thanksgiving inCanadaalso originated in the colonial period, arising from the same European traditions, in gratitude for safe journeys, peace, and bountiful harvests. The earliest celebration was held in 1578, when an expedition led byMartin Frobisherheld a ceremony in present-dayNunavutto give thanks for the safety of its fleet. In 1879Parliamentestablished a national Thanksgiving Day on November 6; the date has varied over the years. Since 1957 Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in Canada on the second Monday in October.
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