Traditions of Thanksgiving

Festivals General Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the most significant holidays in the USA. It marks the start of the holiday season that runs through to Christmas. The holiday commemorates the first harvest of the settlers from England who had arrived in North America in 1620. Its cultural impact is immense, so it is interesting to take a look at how some of the traditions around the holiday arose.

The First Thanksgiving?

For three days in the autumn of 1621, 51 settlers from England and 90 Wampanoag Indians in the colony of Plymouth held a festival to celebrate a good harvest season. The pilgrims had arrived a year earlier in their boat, the Mayflower, which had a passenger list of 102. That harsh first winter had killed half of the settlers, so a good harvest to prepare for the second winter was an event worth giving thanks for.

Did you know?
The Plymouth settlers did not refer to themselves as ‘Pilgrims’. The majority of the settlers were dissidents who had broken away from the Church of England. They would have called themselves ‘separatists’ or ‘puritans’. It wasn’t until about 100 years later that the term ‘Pilgrims’ started to be commonly used to refer to the settlers.

While a momentous event, it wasn’t the first thanksgiving meal in the Americas. It is highly likely that the first such events were held by Spaniards in Florida by the start of the sixteenth century and the earliest recorded Thanksgiving service was held on May 27th 1578 in Newfoundland, Canada.

The menu at the first Thanksgiving

The tradition of turkey and all the trimmings is a key part of the American Thanksgiving tradition, but while we don’t know the full menu served to the Pilgrims and Indians back in 1621, it certainly would be a world away from modern celebrations.

We know the local native Americans brought five deer for the feast, so Venison would have definitely been on the menu. Governor William Bradford had sent out a hunting party out for fowl and they returned with birds such as ducks, geese and swans.

Did you know?
The crew of the Mayflower were originally headed to Virginia but were forced to land at Plymouth Rock, in part due to a shortage of beer.

We also know with some degree of confidence that seafood such as clams, mussels, lobster and oysters would have featured on the menu.

Vegetables that would have appeared on the table include onions, spinach , beans, cabbage, and carrots. Corn, would also have served, but as cornmeal rather than on the cob.

Pumpkins would have been eaten, but as crust is made from butter and wheat flour which were in short supply, they wouldn’t have turned up in a pie. There wouldn’t have been potatoes and cranberries weren’t served with meat until half a century later.

Did you Know?
The first Thanksgiving meal was eaten with spoons and knives. Forks did not become a common eating utensil until the 18th century

When Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, popular recipes of the day such as turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie became established as the traditional meals for the holiday.

Turkey is actually a good choice for a Thanksgiving meal as the birds are big enough to feed a whole family. As they don’t lay eggs, they don’t provide anything else during the winter months, so are more expendable than chickens or ducks.

A 155 year old holiday 186 years in the making

While the first recorded formal proclamation of Thanksgiving was in Charleston, Mass. in 1676, it wasn’t until 1789 when George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a national holiday on Thursday November 26th that year – setting the precedent of the last Thursday in November.

Despite this, the holiday was celebrated on different days from state to state and Thomas Jefferson later did away with the holiday. He considered it a religious holiday and that the US Constitution prohibited any connection between church and state.

In 1863, Thanksgiving became a nationwide holiday when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as the Thanksgiving national holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale, writer of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, led a 17 year campaign to get Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, publishing editorials in Godey’s Magazine, which she was editor of. Many letters she sent in that time were ignored, but a letter to Abraham Lincoln finally convinced him to declare Thanksgiving as a holiday in 1863.

Did you Know?
Until the late nineteenth century, The Catholic Church didn’t recognize Thanksgiving as a holiday as they considered it to be a Protestant only rite.

In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November. This was done to increase the length of the Christmas shopping season to help the economy recover from the great depression. The move from Lincoln’s traditional date didn’t prove popular and Congress moved it back to the final Thursday in November in 1941.

Thanksgiving Parades

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a tradition that began in 1924 and many consider this to be beginning of the commercialization of the holiday. However, Macy’s didn’t start the tradition. Gimbels department store in Philadelphia has the honor of being the first store to hold a Thanksgiving Day parade. It held the parade as a way to promote the start of the Christmas shopping period of 1920.

When Macy’s started its parade in 1924, it was originally called Macy’s Christmas Parade. Employees from the store dressed as clowns, cowboys, and knights and marched next to professional floats, live bands, and 25 live animals that were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. A quarter of a million people lined the streets from 145th St. down to 35th St. to watch the parade.

It wasn’t until 1927 that the parade was renamed Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. 1927 was also a notable year as it when the first parade balloon appeared – featuring the cartoon Felix the Cat.

Did you know?
After the American. government, Macy’s parade is the second-largest consumer of helium in the USA.

The parade didn’t take place for three years during World War II, but the 1945 parade was nationally televised. When footage from the 1946 parade featured in the movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’, it became an integral part of the Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

Turkey pardon

Each year the President pardons the Thanksgiving Turkey.

The tradition can be said to be traced back to the modern father of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln who in 1864 pardoned a turkey that his son, Tad, had adopted as a pet. The White House tradition dates back to President Harry S Truman in 1947.

Though it is undoubtedly good news for the turkey who gets the pardon, the odds aren’t so great for the rest, with around 242 million turkeys being raised in the US in 2014.

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