In the United States and Canada, a day is set aside each year as Thanksgiving Day. On this day, people give thanks with feasting and prayer for the blessings they may have received during the year. The first Thanksgiving Days were harvest festivals, or days for thanking God for plentiful crops. For this reason the holiday still takes place late in the fall, after the crops have been gathered. For thousands of years people in many lands have held harvest festivals. The American Thanksgiving Day probably grew out of the harvest-home celebrations of England.
In the United States, Thanksgiving is usually a family day, celebrated with big dinners and joyous reunions. The very mention of Thanksgiving often calls up memories of kitchens and pantries crowded with good things to eat. Thanksgiving is also time for serious religious thinking, church services, and prayer.
One of the first Thanksgiving observances in America was entirely religious and did not involve feasting. On December 4, 1619, 39 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation, on the James River near what is now Charles City, Virginia. The group’s charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.
The First New England Thanksgiving was celebrated less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had settled in the new land. The first dreadful winter in Massachusetts had killed nearly half of the members of the colony. But new hope grew up in the summer of 1621. The corn harvest brought rejoicing. Governor William Bradford decreed that a three-day feast be held.
The first Thanksgiving Day, set aside for the special purpose of prayer as well as celebration, was decreed by Governor Bradford for July 30, 1623.
The women of the colony spent many days preparing for the feast. The children helped by turning roasts on spits in front of open fires. Indians brought wild turkeys and venison (deer meat). The men of the colony brought geese, ducks, and fish. The women served the meat and fish with journey cake, corn meal bread with nuts, and succotash. Everyone ate outdoors at big tables.
Later Thanksgiving Days in the United States. The custom of Thanksgiving Day spread from Plymouth to other New England colonies. During the Revolutionary War, eight special days of thanks were observed for victories and for being saved from dangers. On November 26, 1789, President George Washington issued a general proclamation for a day of thanks. In the same year the Protestant Episcopal church announced that the first Thursday in November would be a regular yearly day for giving thanks, “unless another day be appointed by the civil authorities.”
For many years there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Some states had a yearly Thanksgiving holiday, and others did not. But by 1830 New York had an official state Thanksgiving Day, and other northern states soon followed its example. Virginia was the first southern state to adopt the custom. It proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day in 1855.
Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, worked many years to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. Then President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November, 1863, as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”
Each year afterward, for 75 years, the President of the United States formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939 President Roosevelt set it one week earlier. He wanted to help business by lengthening the shopping period before Christmas. Congress finally ruled that after 1941 the fourth Thursday of November would be observed as Thanksgiving Day and would be a legal federal holiday.
Thanksgiving Day in Canada is celebrated in much the same way as in the United States. It was formerly celebrated on the last Monday in October. But, in 1957, the Canadian government proclaimed the second Monday in October for the holiday.
The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 18, 1971, by Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, 180, 181.