The First Thanksgiving: What Happened, When Was It, And What Are They Hiding?
The first Thanksgiving
Every kid in America has the bullet points of the first Thanksgiving drilled into their heads---turkey, maize, the pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to hold hands, eat food, and yuck it up around the dinner table---but Thanksgiving isn't as simple as that. The pilgrims and America's native people did come together, but no one celebrated again for a good while, and it wasn't really considered Thanksgiving. This is a holiday that required some serious effort to become an annual tradition.
After the pilgrims came to America, they settled a plot of land that the Patuxet tribe had abandoned because of a plague. The weather was harsh and unforgiving, but in October 1621, the last surviving Patuxet, Squanto, arrived to teach the pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn, so everyone partied. The Thanksgiving feast lasted for three days and featured a drop-in from 90 Native Americans, who got down alongside the 53 pilgrims. James Baker, the vice president of research for the Plymouth Plantation, stated in 1996:
The event occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (Sept. 29), the traditional time.
Thanksgiving in July
The pilgrims wouldn't celebrate a second Thanksgiving until 1623, two years after their initial celebration. The next Thanksgiving wasn't given as a repeat of the first holiday, however; it was a celebration of the two weeks of rain that bolstered the pilgrim's crops and created a larger harvest than expected. They jumped the gun a bit, throwing the feast around July 30, but they had been fasting during the rainfall, so can you blame them? This Thanksgiving feast also came down from the governor and not the church, so it was less of a holy day and more of a civil recognition of the pilgrim's good fortune. At the time Governor Bradford wrote:
And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty ... for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had ... pretty well ... so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day
Americans celebrated off and on during the Revolutionary War
Once the colonists got that whole agriculture thing down and turned their attention toward higher-minded pursuits like fighting for their freedom, they no longer had time to drop everything for a yearly harvest feast, but that didn’t stop the Continental Congress from declaring various days of Thanksgiving in different states. There could be a Thanksgiving in Virginia one month and a Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania the next; it all depended on what the Continental Congress decided. Delegate Samuel Adams wrote up a treatment for the wartime holidays that was quickly ratified by the Continental Congress that read in part:
For as much as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings ... And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased.
George Washington, meanwhile, threw all of that out and declared a Thanksgiving dinner in December 1777 following a win over the British at Saratoga. This was the beginning of a series of Thanksgivings that could break out at anytime without any warning.
Washington does a Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is nothing if not a series of firsts. In 1789, Washington ratified a resolution from the representative of New Jersey that mandated a thanksgiving to observe the new United States Constitution. On October 3 of that year, Washington declared that November 26 would be the national day of thanks, although because he was a big believer in states' rights, he distributed his declaration to the state's respective governors and let them handle the whole deal. After announcing the holiday, Washington celebrated at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City before donating beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city. Rather than create a nationwide standard for celebration, following presidents were allowed to observe Thanksgiving however and whenever they liked.
Jefferson refused to celebrate the holiday
When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1801, he didn’t even think about celebrating Thanksgiving because he saw it as a mingling of church and state, which he generally didn't love. It's believed that Jefferson just hated Thanksgiving, which wouldn't make him all that different from a lot of modern Americans, but in reality, he felt that encouraging the celebration of a Christian holiday would promote the idea of a state-sponsored religion.
After the lack of Thanksgiving in 1801, Jefferson considered explaining his position in a letter to the people in 1802. The President actually told his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, that he was looking forward to telling everyone his thoughts on religion and why it should be kept out of the government, but Lincoln convinced him to think twice of admonishing people for their religions because his political enemy's love of making hay out of the stance. Rather than attack the Federalists and their love of Thanksgiving, he simply doubled down on his believe in the separation of church and state.
Lincoln was responsible for the first federal Thanksgiving in 1863
After Jefferson left office, Thanksgiving came and went like the seasons, but in 1863, President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a permanent holiday in the United States at the behest of his constituents. On September 28, 1863, Lincoln received a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale urging him to create a "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." It would also be pretty cool, she argued, if everyone in the country could celebrate at the same time. She continued:
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
Lincoln was touched by the letter and agreed with her sentiment, so he sent out a proclamation to Americans that instructed them to celebrate and feast. He wrote in part:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God ... I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
Reconstruction-era celebrations were all over the place
Just because Americans were celebrating at the same time doesn't mean they were celebrating the same way. In the back half of the 19th century, people in New England celebrated with a turkey or goose raffle on Thanksgiving Eve and a shooting match on Thanksgiving Day, using turkeys and chickens as targets, before going to church. The feasts were similar in that people enjoyed poultry of one kind or another, but grocery stores weren't brimming with Butterballs and Stove Top the way they are today, so the feasts consisted chiefly of whatever people could put together.
In the early 20th century, Thanksgiving briefly turned into Ragamuffin Day, a time when people got dressed up in masks and costumes before taking to the streets in homespun parades. The celebration was quickly taken over by young people dressed as "ragamuffins," and by the 1950s, the holiday was all but melded into Halloween.
FDR changed the timing of Thanksgiving in 1939
Take note, every office manager who's thinking about consolidating birthdays: FDR really whiffed it by changing the timing of Thanksgiving. More often than not, presidents followed Lincoln's example and celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, but in 1939, FDR decided that becoming an agent of chaos sounded more fun.
Okay, it wasn't just the 32nd president's passion for mayhem. That year, there were five Thursdays in November, and he was worried that if Thanksgiving was too late, it could mess up the Christmas-buying season. As the country was in the middle of the Depression, that was definitely something to stress about, so he moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of the month, plunging everything into anarchy.
Half of the country went along with the President's plan, but the other half rejected it in favor of the traditional last Thursday. The exception was three states---Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado---who stepped up to the challenge and celebrated two Thanksgivings. College students missed out on Thanksgiving with their families because their breaks were timed differently from their out-of-state families' celebrations, Mississippians faced the unforeseen consequences of two giant turkey feasts only a week apart, and everything generally descended into madness. Then it happened again every year until 1942, the year FDR finally learned his lesson.
FDR gets his act together
On November 26, 1941, FDR admitted that he might have screwed up with the whole "last Thursday" thing and signed a bill into law officially declaring the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day. After all of that, however, not every state followed the decree (perhaps Colorado developed a crazed turkey thirst?). One of the longest holdouts was Texas, who continued to celebrate on the final Thursday as late as 1956.
Canada, you're doing it ... differently
If you're a real turkey-head, you know that Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving, but it's not the same thing as the American holiday, except in the ways that it is. The holiday takes place on the second Monday in October to celebrate the harvest, which is similar to American Thanksgiving but also sacrilegious to November purists. Early celebrations were also held at different times, and like America, they didn't happen every year.
Following the American Revolution, American refugees made their way up north and brought their customs along with them, which is when turkey, pumpkins, and squash were melded into the holiday. In the 1800s, it was observed as a civic holiday whenever the country was looking to celebrate something big. Along the away, it was mixed with Remembrance Day, a holiday to commemorates those who died in armed conflicts, but in 1931, the two holidays were split. It seems like that just created the new problem of having Thanksgiving and Halloween in the same month, and while our Canadian friends insist they get along fine with it, they're probably just being polite.