Thanksgiving Day. History

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated in Canada, the United States, some of the Caribbean islands, and Liberia. It began as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Similarly named festival holidays occur in Germany and Japan. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States, and around the same part of the year in other places. Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday as well.

History

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday's history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.

In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5.

In Canada

According to some historians, the first celebration of Thanksgiving in North America occurred during the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage. Other researchers, however, state that "there is no compelling narrative of the origins of the Canadian Thanksgiving day."

The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are also sometimes traced to the French settlers who came to New France in the 17th century, who celebrated their successful harvests. The French settlers in the area typically had feasts at the end of the harvest season and continued throughout the winter season, even sharing food with the indigenous peoples of the area.
As settlers arrived in Nova Scotia from New England after 1700, late autumn Thanksgiving celebrations became commonplace. New immigrants into the country—such as the Irish, Scottish, and Germans—also added their own traditions to the harvest celebrations. Most of the US aspects of Thanksgiving (such as the turkey) were incorporated when United Empire Loyalists began to flee from the United States during the American Revolution and settled in Canada.

In the United States

In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts, and also to a well recorded 1619 event in Virginia. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group's charter from the London Company, which specifically required "that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned ... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

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Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the "First Thanksgiving", including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. Now called Oktober Feesten, Leiden's autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims' plans to emigrate to America. Later in Massachusetts, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned the colony's thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.

Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God."

Debate about the nation's first celebrations

The question of where the first Thanksgiving was held in the United States has been a subject of debate, primarily between New England and Virginia, complicated by the concept of Thanksgiving as a holiday celebration versus a religious service. James Baker maintains, "The American holiday's true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God's providence." Baker calls the debate a "tempest in a beanpot" and "marvelous nonsense" based on regional claims. However, the day for Thanksgiving services specifically codified in the founding charter of Berkeley Hundred in 1619 was instrumental in President John F. Kennedy's attempt to strike a compromise between the regional claims, by issuing Proclamation 3560 on November 5, 1963, stating, "Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God."

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Other claims include an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598. Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in current Saint Augustine, Florida.

Fixing the date of the holiday

The earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada has often been attributed to the earlier onset of winter in the North, thus ending the harvest season earlier. Thanksgiving in Canada did not have a fixed date until the late 19th century. Prior to Canadian Confederation, many of the individual colonial governors of the Canadian provinces had declared their own days of Thanksgiving. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving occurred on April 15, 1872, when the nation was celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from a serious illness. By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day was normally celebrated on November 6. However, when World War I ended, the Armistice Day holiday was usually held during the same week. To prevent the two holidays from clashing with one another, in 1957 the Canadian Parliament proclaimed Thanksgiving to be observed on its present date on the second Monday of October. Since 1971, when the American Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, the American observance of Columbus Day has coincided with the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.

Much as in Canada, Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century. Modern Thanksgiving was first officially called for in all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states. Because of the ongoing Civil War and the Confederate States of America's refusal to recognize Lincoln's authority, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.

On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. Two years earlier, Roosevelt had used a presidential proclamation to try to achieve this change, reasoning that earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost.

Traditional celebrations

Charity

The poor are often provided with food at Thanksgiving time. Most communities have annual food drives that collect non-perishable packaged and canned foods, and corporations sponsor charitable distributions of staple foods and Thanksgiving dinners. The Salvation Army enlists volunteers to serve Thanksgiving dinners to hundreds of people in different locales. Additionally, pegged to be five days after Thanksgiving is Giving Tuesday, a celebration of charitable giving.

Foods of the season

U.S. tradition compares the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Plantation. It is continued in modern times with the Thanksgiving dinner, traditionally featuring turkey, playing a central role in the celebration of Thanksgiving.

In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Turkey, usually roasted and stuffed (but sometimes deep-fried instead), is typically the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table, so much so that Thanksgiving is colloquially known as "Turkey Day." In fact, 45 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone in 2015. With 85 percent of Americans partaking in the meal, that’s an estimated 276 million Americans dining on the festive poultry, spending an expected $1.05 billion on turkeys for Thanksgiving in 2016.

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Mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables, squash, and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Green bean casserole was introduced in 1955 and remains a favorite. All of these are actually native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans when they arrived. Turkey may be an exception. In his book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that the Pilgrims might already have been familiar with turkey in England, even though the bird is native to the Americas. The Spaniards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a "fixture at English Christmases". The Pilgrims did not observe Christmas.

As a result of the size of Thanksgiving dinner, Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.

Giving thanks

Thanksgiving was founded as a religious observance for all the members of the community to give thanks to God for a common purpose. Historic reasons for community thanksgivings are: the 1541 thanksgiving mass after the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado safely crossing the high plains of Texas and finding game, and the 1777 thanksgiving after the victory in the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga. In his 1789 National Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Washington gave many noble reasons for a national Thanksgiving, including "for the civil and religious liberty", for "useful knowledge", and for God's "kind care" and "His Providence". After President Washington delivered this message, the "Episcopal Church, of which President Washington was a member, announced that the first Thursday in November would become its regular day for giving thanks". After Washington, the only presidents to express a specifically Christian perspective in their proclamation have been Grover Cleveland in 1896, and William McKinley in 1900. Several other presidents have cited the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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The tradition of giving thanks to God is continued today in many forms, most notably the attendance of religious services, as well as the saying of a mealtime prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. Many houses of worship offer worship services and events on Thanksgiving themes the weekend before, the day of, or the weekend after Thanksgiving. At home, it is a holiday tradition in many families to begin the Thanksgiving dinner by saying grace (a prayer before or after a meal). The custom is portrayed in the photograph "Family Holding Hands and Praying Before a Thanksgiving Meal". Before praying, it is a common practice at the dining table for "each person [to] tell one specific reason they're thankful to God that year." While grace is said, many families hold hands until the prayer concludes, often indicated with an "Amen". Traditionally, grace was led by the hostess or host, though in later times it is usual for others to contribute.

Joy Fisher, a Baptist Christian writer, states that "this holiday takes on a spiritual emphasis and includes recognition of the source of the blessings they enjoy year round — a loving God." In the same vein, Hesham A. Hassaballa, an American Muslim scholar and physician, has written that Thanksgiving "is wholly consistent with Islamic principles" and that "few things are more Islamic than thanking God for His blessings". Similarly many Sikh Americans also celebrate the holiday by "giving thanks to Almighty".

Parades

Since 1924, in New York City, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually every Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy's flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally by NBC. The parade features parade floats with specific themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon characters, TV personalities, and high school marching bands. The float that traditionally ends the Macy's Parade is the Santa Claus float, the arrival of which is an unofficial sign of the beginning of the Christmas season. It is billed as the world's largest parade.

The oldest Thanksgiving Day parade is the 6abc Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade, which launched in 1920 and takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's parade was long associated with Gimbels, a prominent Macy's rival, until that store closed in 1986. Its current sponsors are WPVI-TV, the channel 6 ABC affiliate in Philadelphia; and Dunkin' Donuts, the donut chain.

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Founded in 1924, the same year as the Macy's parade, America's Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit is one of the largest parades in the country. The parade runs from Midtown to Downtown Detroit and precedes the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving football game. The parade includes large balloons, marching bands, and various celebrity guests much like the Macy's parade and is nationally televised on various affiliate stations. The Mayor of Detroit closes the parade by giving Santa Claus a key to the city.

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