Thanksgiving, a holiday deeply ingrained in American culture, has a rich and complex history. It's a narrative that intertwines the nation's founding traditions, political decisions, and, surprisingly, the evolution of retail and branding.
The 1621 Harvest Feast, A Cause for Gathering.
The 1621 feast was a celebration of the Pilgrims' first successful harvest in the New World. The previous year had been difficult for the Plymouth settlers, with many succumbing to harsh conditions. The successful harvest of 1621 was a sign of hope and survival, warranting a celebratory gathering.
The Wampanoag tribe, led by Chief Massasoit, played a crucial role in the survival of the Plymouth colonists. They taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate the land and were essential allies in navigating the local environment. Their involvement in the feast was both a gesture of diplomacy and a sharing of resources.
The Menu, A Feast Different from Today's Thanksgiving.
The exact menu of the 1621 feast is not entirely known, but it likely included venison (provided by the Wampanoag), wildfowl (such as ducks, geese, and possibly turkey), fish, and harvested crops like corn. Contrary to popular belief, traditional Thanksgiving dishes like mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie were not part of the feast. The cooking techniques and recipes were a blend of English culinary traditions and Wampanoag methods. The meal was prepared over open fires and included roasting and boiling.
Annual Observance, The Legacy and Romanticization.
The 1621 harvest feast was not initially an annual event. It was a spontaneous celebration of survival and gratitude. Subsequent Thanksgiving observances varied in timing and tradition, not becoming a regular annual holiday until much later. Over the centuries, the story of the 1621 feast has been romanticized and has evolved into the Thanksgiving narrative familiar today.
However, the complexity and nuances of the interactions between the Pilgrims and Native Americans have often been oversimplified or overlooked in this romanticized version. There is controversy surrounding the 1621 feast, particularly from the perspective of Native Americans. Some view it as the beginning of a long history of displacement and suffering for Indigenous peoples in North America.
A National Day of Thanksgiving and A Presidential Proclamation.
The first U.S. President to recognize Thanksgiving was George Washington. The recognition came in the form of a proclamation issued on October 3, 1789. President Washington issued the proclamation in response to a request from Congress, which had just passed a resolution requesting a day of national thanksgiving. The proclamation declared a National Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. Washington recognized the occasion as a time for Americans to express gratitude for the successful establishment of their new government after the Revolutionary War.
This 1789 proclamation marked the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution. However, it didn't establish an annual federal holiday; it was a one-time event. The observance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was sporadic and dependent on presidential proclamations until Abraham Lincoln's presidency.
A Nation Divided and The Need for Unity.
On October 3, 1863, exactly 74 years after George Washington's first Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln's proclamation came amidst the Civil War, a period of profound hardship and division in the United States. The proclamation was influenced by a series of editorials by Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor who campaigned for a national Thanksgiving holiday for several decades. Her advocacy highlighted the need for a unifying national holiday.
Unlike Washington’s one-time event, Lincoln’s 1863 declaration was more impactful in establishing an annual tradition. Each year following, for the rest of his presidency, Lincoln continued to declare the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving. Subsequent presidents followed Lincoln’s example, annually declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. This tradition continued until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the second-to-last Thursday of November to extend the holiday shopping season during the Great Depression.
Retail Intervention and the Date Controversy.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to move the date of Thanksgiving was a significant and controversial moment in the holiday's history, deeply intertwined with the economic context of the time and the influence of the retail industry. The decision came in 1939, amidst the Great Depression when the American economy was still recovering from the most severe economic downturn in its history.
Traditionally, the Christmas shopping season began after Thanksgiving. In 1939, Thanksgiving was to fall on November 30, leaving a very short shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retailers were concerned about this limited shopping window, fearing it could negatively impact the crucial holiday sales that many depended on for profitability. The push to change the date of Thanksgiving came from several major retailers and business leaders. John Wanamaker, owner of Wanamaker's of Philadelphia, and Fred Lazarus, Jr., the owner of Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), were particularly influential. They lobbied the government to move Thanksgiving up a week to extend the shopping season.
A Thanksgiving "Gathering" Divided Across "Party" Lines.
In August 1939, Roosevelt announced that Thanksgiving would be celebrated a week earlier than usual. This decision was not immediately adopted nationwide; it created confusion and divided states into two camps - those that followed the federal date and those that stuck with the traditional last Thursday celebration. The change was not as successful as retailers had hoped. While there was a slight uptick in sales, the public's mixed reaction and the divided observance of the holiday dampened the potential impact.
Due to the lukewarm response and ongoing controversy, Roosevelt reverted to the traditional last-Thursday observance in 1941. However, that same year, Congress passed a law officially setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. After the law was passed, several states continued to resist the change. These states chose to resist "Franksgiving" and instead celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, as had been traditional before President Franklin D. Roosevelt's initial shift in 1939. The last state to hold out? Texas, which eventually aligned with the federal observance in 1956, thereby ending a period of nationwide inconsistency regarding the holiday’s date.
And you thought political discussions at the Thanksgiving table was something new...
Did You Know?
Thanksgiving Was Not Originally "Thanksgiving": The term "Thanksgiving" was not used by the Pilgrims to describe the 1621 feast; it was a harvest celebration without the regularity nor the religious connotations associated with later Thanksgivings as they became celebrated by Presidential proclamation.
Sarah Josepha Hale's Advocacy: The establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday is largely attributed to the persistent advocacy of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, over several decades. Hale's campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday spanned several decades, beginning in the 1820s and culminating in the 1860s.
Hale wrote letters to five U.S. Presidents – Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln – urging them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She highlighted how such a holiday would serve as a unifying force for a country that was increasingly divided.
National Day of Mourning: Some Native Americans observe Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning. It is a significant counter-observance that serves as a reminder of the suffering and injustices experienced by Native peoples throughout American history. This day of remembrance stands in stark contrast to the traditional celebrations of Thanksgiving and highlights the complex and often painful history of Indigenous peoples in North America.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in 1924, originally conceived by its employees as a way to celebrate the expansion of Macy's flagship Manhattan store. Well, a couple of corrections. The first Thanksgiving Day Parade was held by Gimbels in Philadelphia in 1920. And the first Macy's Parade in 1924 was actually a "Christmas Parade"; it didn't become the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade until 1927.
TV Dinners' Debut, a "Leftover Innovation": The concept of the TV dinner was popularized by Swanson in 1953, thanks to an excess of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, leading to the creation of pre-packaged frozen meals. Swanson, known for its frozen foods, found itself with a massive surplus of turkey following Thanksgiving – an excess of 260 tons, according to some accounts. This overestimation led to a significant inventory problem. The company needed a way to utilize this surplus in a manner that would be both profitable and appealing to consumers. The solution they arrived at was both innovative and transformative. Gerald Thomas, a salesman at Swanson, is credited with the idea of creating pre-packaged, frozen meals that would include turkey along with sides like cornbread dressing and peas.
Turkey, Lions and the NFL, Thanksgiving Traditions: The NFL, originally known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA), was founded in 1920. The tradition of playing football games on Thanksgiving Day also began in that inaugural year. The first NFL game played on Thanksgiving was hosted by the Detroit Lions in 1934. The team's owner, G.A. Richards, scheduled a game against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving in an effort to attract more fans and gain more attention for the sport. The game was a success, both in attendance and in national interest, as it was broadcast live across the nation. Since their first Thanksgiving game in 1934, the Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day every year, with the exception of during World War II. This tradition has made the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game a staple of the NFL season.