The fabled first Thanksgiving feast in New England, the one that brought together the Pilgrims and members of a Native American tribe (the Wampanoag), happened almost 400 years ago. But Thanksgiving didn’t become an official American holiday until over 200 years later.
When the Pilgrims came to the New World, it was difficult for them to survive. They didn’t have the agricultural or hunting knowledge they needed to prosper in their new home, and the harsh winter of 1620 killed off about half of the Pilgrim population. The Native Americans assisted the survivors by sharing their knowledge of the land. After a successful harvest the following year, the Pilgrims held a three-day feast in November with a menu that likely included goose, codfish, and venison (but no turkey). Although the event was important enough to make it into the historical record, it was not repeated the following year.
In truth, holidays of thanksgiving were not that unusual at that time in history. The European-born populations of the New World often declared thanksgiving days to honor military victories or to commemorate other instances of good fortune. For example, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 a few years after the Revolutionary War had ended. These thanksgiving days were often about fasting and prayer, not feasting.
The evolution of various thanksgiving days into the holiday of Thanksgiving is mostly due to one singular and single-minded woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. Born in 1788, Hale, who is also known as the writer of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” read about the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving and celebrated an annual thanksgiving holiday during her New Hampshire childhood. Indeed, the tradition was being observed in pockets of the country, but she thought America should adopt this tradition as a national holiday. She loved how it brought families and communities together under a spirit of gratitude, and she also felt would unite a nation that was growing divided between North and South. She wrote articles about Thanksgiving constantly for publications, created recipes and menus (including roasted turkey), and lobbied politicians about it for decades.
She finally succeeded in 1863, when Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. He likewise hoped the holiday would help unite a divided nation. Since then, the holiday has been ensconced in American tradition.
It kept evolving, however. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in the roaring 1920s when the economy was flush. It was a small parade in terms of participants, but it winded for six miles throughout Manhattan and gathered crowds as it approached Macy’s flagship store. The parade grew bigger every year, and when TV started to broadcast the parades many decades later, the big floating balloons took prominence because they came across well on the small screen.
The tradition of football games on Thanksgiving also began in the 1920s. When times got bad in the Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season to support retailers. He wanted to stimulate consumer spending. Roosevelt was criticized for tinkering with tradition, and not everyone wanted to celebrate what they derided as “Franksgiving.” It was eventually moved back to its standard place as the fourth Thursday in November.
The tradition of the president pardoning a turkey began in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. While Thanksgiving Day used to be a day when just about all commerce stopped, more people seem to want to shop on Thanksgiving, and more stores are opening for holiday crowds. Meanwhile, other stores insist on remaining closed and make a point that their employees deserve a day off. It just goes to show that the holiday is always in flux and always evolving.