It’s that time of the year when the air is filled with the aroma of pumpkin spice. The fourth Thursday in November has become one of the biggest holidays in the United States, with around 50 million people travelling in the US each year during this period.
1. The first Thanksgiving
The origins of Thanksgiving in the US lie in the dinner shared by the pilgrims coming from Plymouth and the Wampanoag people in 1621. The English had a tough first year in the new land, half of them dying during the winter of 1620. The ones that survived were taught by the Native Americans how to harvest corn, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants.
After the successful harvest of 1621, the colony organised a celebratory feast to thank God for the riches of the Earth. The festival lasted for three days and was also attended by the Wampanoag People and their chief, Massasoit, who brought five deer as a gift. This is considered the “first Thanksgiving” and a symbol of how the settlers could cohabit with the Native Americans in peace.
The chronicler Edward Winslow wrote at the time “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”
2. Becoming a national holiday
Over the next century local communities celebrated days of giving thanks to God for many reasons, some for abundant harvests, some for victories in battle. Only in 1777 President George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to celebrate the defeat of the British at Saratoga.
After 1798, it was left up to each state to decide when or if they wanted to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day. New York became the first state to officially adopt the Thanksgiving as an annual holiday and in 1827 editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale started a campaign for making Thanksgiving a national holiday, bringing her the nickname of “Mother of Thanksgiving”.
During the Civil War, on 3 October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, 26 November. Afterwards, each president proclaimed the holiday annually on the last Thursday of November, until Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, during the Great Depression, in an attempt to extend the Christmas shopping season, tried to move the holiday to the third week of November.
His proposition faced a lot of criticism and, on 6 October, 1941, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942, with an amendment being added in December to clarify that on the occasions when the month of November has 5 Thursdays, Thanksgiving Day falls on the fourth one. President Roosevelt signed this bill, making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law for the first time and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.
The holiday has moved away from its religious origins, so it can be enjoyed and celebrated by all the people of the United States, regardless of their background.
Thanksgiving is now a day of celebration and joy, when families come together to have the traditional turkey with cranberry sauce, the parades and football matches and maybe share what they are thankful for in their lives.