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The first Thanksgiving, 1621, Pilgrims and natives gather to share a meal, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932.

How Thanksgiving became a holiday

The first Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932 | Image: Shutterstock

What is Thanksgiving and when is it celebrated?

In 2022, Thanksgiving falls on the 24th of November and since 1941 it always lands on the fourth Thursday in November. For many Americans, Thanksgiving is the most important day of the year, even superseding Christmas, and Halloween. In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to the traditional UK Harvest Festival, in so far that it's designed to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest before the onset of winter. The American version focuses on this aspect too, but the emphasis is on family and friends gathering to enjoy a celebrated meal, served with a large dollop of patriotism.

When was the first-ever Thanksgiving?

The first documented Thanksgiving of 1619 was a direct result of English settlers, quite literally, giving thanks to God for landing safely on US soil after spending perilous months on the high seas. But most Americans will be aware of the more symbolic version of 1621 when two Native American tribes, the Wampanoag and Patuxet, broke bread with the newly arrived Pilgrim Fathers. However, unlike the 1619 version, the 1621 event is a little more romantic and it’s easy to see why it captured the national imagination.

Why do some people find Thanksgiving controversial?

The answer comes in two distinct forms. Many historians doubt the validity of the events of 1621, unlike the events of 1619, but no one is in doubt surrounding the fate of the Native Americans. For them, European colonisation was an unmitigated disaster. Take, for example, the two tribes who may or may not have attended the 1621 event. The Wampanoag were all but annihilated during King Philip’s War of 1675–76 (one of the bloodiest conflicts in U.S. history) with the Patuxent people wholly wiped out by European diseases in a matter of a few years. For many Indigenous Americans, then, Thanksgiving is a day of sorrow.

When did Thanksgiving become a holiday?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the time of George Washington (1732 – 1799) who declared Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a 'Day of Publick Thanksgivin'.

Despite Washington’s poor command of English (John Adams described Washington as, 'too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation,') he intended to establish a single day in the calendar when the nation could come together and celebrate their citizenship. But this date was by no means definitive. Subsequent presidents proclaimed Thanksgiving on different days, weeks and even months, until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving should be annually recognised on the last Thursday of November.

Why did the date of Thanksgiving change (again)?

In 1939, Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday of November as usual, but the date was the 30th of November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned that the Thanksgiving celebrations may have an economic impact on Christmas spending, changed the date to the second to last Thursday of November.

Thirty-two states complied with the new directive but sixteen refused, so for two years, the USA had two Thanksgivings. All this changed on October 6, 1941, when Congress attempted to legally set the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, however, the Senate -taking into account those years when November has five Thursdays- pushed back and, instead, declared a preference for the fourth Thursday in November. The House agreed and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed the resolution, just over three weeks after the USA reluctantly entered World War Two.

How is Thanksgiving celebrated?

These days, of course, it’s all about the Turkey and pumpkin pie for dessert, with friends and family travelling all over the country to meet up and congregate. And since 1869, American Football has almost become as synonymous with Thanksgiving as the ubiquitous turkey (more on that later).

American football and Thanksgiving

On November 17, 1869, Philadelphia’s local newspaper published the following announcement: "A foot-ball match between twenty-two players of the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club will take place on Thanksgiving Day at 12 1/2 o'clock, on the grounds of the Germantown Club”. If the spelling of ‘foot-ball’ seems a little uncertain there is a good reason why. This wasn’t just the first game of football to be played on Thanksgiving, it heralded the dawn of American Football itself.

The match, played between Rutgers and Princeton, was a crude mixture of soccer and Rugby and, even though it’d be a few decades before the rules were properly fixed (the first NFL games were played on Thanksgiving in 1920), the match became more than a Thanksgiving institution, it helped create the nation’s favourite sport.

The Thanksgiving turkey

At around the same time that the USA was getting to grips with a brand-new game of foot-ball, the turkey had established itself as the main player in the Thanksgiving meal. However, turkeys weren’t always synonymous with Thanksgiving, and we can only speculate why.

Outside of its sheer size, one explanation was ‘Northwood’, a novel by Sarah Josepha Hale. Written in 1827, Hale dedicated a chapter to a turkey-heavy New England Thanksgiving. Hale also campaigned enthusiastically to make Thanksgiving a national Holiday, so by the time, Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving should be recognised, the turkey had already slipped into the national psyche. Nowadays it’s estimated 45 million turkeys are killed each year to feed hungry Thanksgivers, a significant portion of the 240 million Turkeys slaughtered annually in the USA.

Thanksgiving trivia

  • Pardoning the turkeys. John F. Kennedy was the first to free a Thanksgiving turkey and Richard Nixon sent his turkey to a petting zoo. But it was George H.W. Bush who made the pardoning of the turkey official when he took office in 1989.
  • Harry Truman wasn’t the first president to pardon a turkey, but he was the first to receive a ceremonial turkey from the National Turkey Federation. And he ate it.
  • Under the stewardship of President Ronald Reagan, 'American Indian Week' was held at the end of November 1986. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush designated November, 'National American Indian Heritage Month'.
  • Now, every November, National American Indian Heritage Month -now called ‘Native American Heritage Month’ (or ‘American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month') is recognised annually alongside its nemesis, Thanksgiving.
  • Thanksgiving isn’t recognised in the UK, but in 2021, 39% of 18-24-year-olds, 27% of 25-34-year-olds and 22% of 35-44-year-olds celebrated it. Only 10% of these are American and 55% are devoid of any US connections at all.