Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and Thanksgiving 2021 occurs on Thursday, November 25. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.

READ MORE: Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

READ MORE: Whats the Difference Between Puritans and Pilgrims?

Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Native American who greeted them in English. 

Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the first Thanksgiving’s exact menu, much of what we know about what happened at the first Thanksgiving comes from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, 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. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations

READ MORE: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast in 1621 that is widely acknowledged to be one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. But some historians argue that Florida, not Massachusetts, may have been the true site of the first Thanksgiving in North America. In 1565, nearly 60 years before Plymouth, a Spanish fleet came ashore and planted a cross in the sandy beach to christen the new settlement of St. Augustine. To celebrate the arrival, the 800 Spanish settlers shared a festive meal with the native Timucuan people.

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The first Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth probably had little in common with today’s traditional holiday spread. Although turkeys were indigenous, there’s no record of a big, roasted bird at the feast. The Wampanoag brought deer and there would have been lots of local seafood (mussels, lobster, bass) plus the fruits of the first pilgrim harvest, including pumpkin. No mashed potatoes, though. Potatoes had only been recently shipped back to Europe from South America.

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America first called for a national day of thanksgiving to celebrate victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga. In 1789, George Washington again called for national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November in 1777 to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. And during the Civil War, both the Confederacy and the Union issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations following major victories.

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Thomas Jefferson was famously the only Founding Father and early president who refused to declare days of thanksgiving and fasting in the United States. Unlike his political rivals, the Federalists, Jefferson believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State” and believed that endorsing such celebrations as president would amount to a state-sponsored religious worship.

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The first official proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday didn’t come until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln called for an annual Thanksgiving celebration on the final Thursday in November. The proclamation was the result of years of impassioned lobbying by "Mary Had a Little Lamb" author and abolitionist Sarah Josepha Hale. 

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Pumpkin pie was a staple on New England Thanksgiving tables as far back as the turn of the 18th century. Legend has it that the Connecticut town of Colchester postponed its Thanksgiving feast for a week in 1705 due to a molasses shortage. There could simply be no Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.

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Cranberries were eaten by Native Americans and used as a potent red dye, but sweetened cranberry relish was almost certainly not on the first Thanksgiving table. The pilgrims had long exhausted their sugar supply by November 1621. Marcus Urann canned the first jellied cranberry sauce in 1912 and eventually founded the cranberry growers cooperative known as Ocean Spray.

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In 1953, an employee at C.A. Swanson & Sons overestimated demand for Thanksgiving turkey and the company was left with some 260 tons of extra frozen birds. As a solution, Smithsonian reports, a Swanson salesman ordered 5,000 aluminum trays, devised a turkey meal and recruited an assembly line of workers to compile what would become the first TV tray dinners. A culinary hit was born. In the first full year of production, 1954, the company sold 10 million turkey TV tray dinners.

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The winning combo of football and Thanksgiving kicked off way before there was anything called the NFL. The first Thanksgiving football game was a college match between Yale and Princeton in 1876, only 13 years after Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Soon after, Thanksgiving was picked for the date of the college football championships. By the 1890s, thousands of college and high school football rivalries were played every Thanksgiving. 

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Starting in the 1940s, farmers would gift the president with some plump birds for roast turkey over the holidays, which the first family would invariably eat. While John F. Kennedy was the first American president to spare a turkey’s life (“We’ll just let this one grow,” JFK quipped in 1963. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”) the annual White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey officially started with George H.W. Bush in 1989.

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In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge received a somewhat odd Thanksgiving gift in the form of a live raccoon. Meant to be eaten (the Mississippi man who sent it called raccoon meat “toothsome”), the Coolidge family adopted the pet and named it Rebecca. Rebecca was only the latest addition to their already substantial White House menagerie that included a black bear, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippo named Billy.

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To celebrate the expansion of its Herald Square superstore, Macy’s announced its very first “Big Christmas Parade” two weeks before Thanksgiving in 1924, promising “magnificent floats,” bands and an “animal circus.” A huge success, Macy’s trimmed the parade route from six miles to two miles and signed a TV contract with NBC to broadcast the now famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

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In 1927, the first oversized balloons debuted in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The brainchild of Anthony Frederick Sarg, a German-born puppeteer and theatrical designer who also created Macy’s fantastical Christmas window displays, the first balloons were filled with oxygen, not helium, and featured Felix the Cat and inflated animals. 

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Concerned that the Christmas shopping season was cut short by a late Thanksgiving, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed in 1939 that Thanksgiving would be celebrated a week earlier. “Franksgiving,” as it was known, was decried by Thanksgiving traditionalists and political rivals (one even compared FDR to Hitler) and only adopted by 23 of the 48 states. Congress officially moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941, where it has remained ever since. 

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Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. 

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. 

In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, earning her the nickname the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

READ MORE: How the Mother of Thanksgiving Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday  

Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Traditions and Rituals

In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been on offer when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. 

Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird—whether roasted, baked or deep-fried—on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.

‘Andy the Alligator’ in the 1933 parade seems dwarfed in size compared to the balloons of today.

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Mickey Mouse made his first debut in this 1934 parade. The original caption that ran in the NY Daily News for this photo read, the “parade was so large this year it took an hour to pass”.

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According to the NY Daily News, this 1937 parade featured seven musical organizations, twenty-one floats and balloon units and 400 costumed marchers. 

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The Tin Man made his debut months after the release of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. This photo was taken from the sixth story of a Times Square building as the parade went past. 

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The crew prepare to erect the giant inflatable Macy’s clown for the Macy’s Parade in 1942.

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It’s still tradition today for New Yorkers to watch the balloons being inflated and prepared the night before the big show. 

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An NBC camera set up to film the 1945 parade from a rooftop.

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Kids were delighted by the clowns and costumes that walked along Central Park West at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, 1949. 

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This helium-filled Space Cadet, coming in at 70 feet tall, was indicative of the newest adventure interests of America’s kids in 1952. 

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Not all animals were larger than life balloons. A group of elephants participated in the 1954 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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Radio City Rockettes filled stockings on this 1958 parade float.

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The Thanksgiving Turkey accompanied by a marching band make their way through Times Square, 1959.

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It wouldn’t be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as we know it without a performance by the Rockettes, 1964.

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Macys

Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.

Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.

Thanksgiving Controversies

For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims’ celebration. In 1565, for instance, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival. On December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River, they read a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Some Native Americans and many others take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially to schoolchildren. In their view, the traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar events are held in other parts of the country.

Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins

Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic. Both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.

As an annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty, moreover, Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents and millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Finally, historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.

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