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Though the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving dinner, our celebration of the holiday today is due in large part to the tireless efforts of a nineteenth-century female editor of a popular ladies' magazine.


Plymouth, Massachusetts Thanksgiving: 1621

Though the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving dinner, our celebration of the holiday today is due in large part to the tireless efforts of a nineteenth-century female editor of a popular ladies' magazine.

The 102 pilgrims who sailed on board the Mayflower, fleeing religious oppression, were well acquainted with annual thanksgiving day celebrations. The custom was ancient and universal. The Greeks had honored Demeter, goddess of agriculture; the Romans had paid tribute to Ceres, the goddess of corn; while the Hebrews had offered thanks for abundant harvests with the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles. These customs had never really died out in the Western world.

The Pilgrims, after a four-month journey that began in Holland, landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Confronted with severe weather, and a plague that killed hundreds of local Indians, they had by the fall of 1621 lost forty-six of their own members, mainly to scurvy and pneumonia. The survivors, though, had something to be thankful for. A new and bountiful crop had been harvested. Food was abundant. And they were alive, in large part thanks to the assistance of one person: an English-speaking Pawtuxet Indian named Squanto, who was to stay by their side until his death two years later.

As a boy, Squanto had been captured by explorers to America and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped to England, spent several years working for a wealthy merchant, and, considerably Anglicized, returned to his native Indian village just six months before the Pilgrims landed. He had helped them build houses and to plant and cultivate crops of corn and barley. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims elected a new governor, William Bradford, and proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in their small town, which had seven private homes and four communal buildings.

The Pilgrims invited the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, and ninety of his braves, and the work of preparing the feast-for ninety-one Indians and fifty-six settlers-fell to only four Pilgrim women and two teenage girls. (Thirteen women had died the previous winter.)

The first Thanksgiving Day had all the elements of modern celebrations, only on a smaller scale. A parade of soldiers, blasting muskets and trumpeting bugles, was staged by Captain Myles Standish. The ninety Indian braves competed against the settlers in foot races and jumping matches. And after the Indians displayed their accuracy with bow and arrow, the white men, with guns, exhibited their own breed of marksmanship.

The following year brought a poor harvest, and boatloads of new immigrants to house and feed; the Pilgrims staged no Thanksgiving feast. In fact, after that first plentiful and protracted meal, the Pilgrims never regularly celebrated a Thanksgiving Day.

October 1777 marked the first time all the thirteen colonies joined in a common thanksgiving celebration, and the occasion commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. It, too, however, was a one-time affair.

The first national Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by President George Washington in 1789, the year of his inauguration, but discord among the colonies prevented the executive order from being carried out. For one thing, many Americans felt that the hardships endured by a mere handful of early settlers were unworthy of commemoration on a national scale-certainly the brave new nation had nobler events that merited celebration. On this theme, President Thomas Jefferson went so far as to actively condemn a national recognition of Thanksgiving during his two terms.

The establishment of the day we now celebrate nationwide was largely the result of the diligent efforts of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Mrs. Hale started her one-woman crusade for a Thanksgiving celebration in 1827, while she was editor of the extremely popular Boston Ladies’ Magazine. Her hortatory editorials argued for the observance of a national Thanksgiving holiday, and she encouraged the public to write to their local politicians.

In addition to her magazine outlet, over a period of almost four decades she wrote hundreds of letters to governors, ministers, newspaper editors, and each incumbent President. She always made the same request: that the last Thursday in November be set aside to "offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year."

Finally, national events converged to make Mrs. Hale’s request a reality. By 1863, the Civil War had bitterly divided the nation into two armed camps. Mrs. Hale’s final editorial, highly emotional and unflinchingly patriotic, appeared in September of that year, just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, in which hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. In spite of the staggering toll of dead, Gettysburg was an important victory for the North, and a general feeling of elation, together with the clamor produced by Mrs. Hale’s widely circulated editorial, prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation on October 3, 1863, setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day.

Since then, there has been one controversial tampering with that tradition.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted Thanksgiving back one week, to the third Thursday in November because store merchants requested an increase in the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This pleased the merchants but just about no one else. Vehement protests were staged throughout the country. Millions of Americans, in defiance of the presidential proclamation, continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November-and they took the day off from work. Protests grew even louder the following year. Not wanting to go down in history as the "Grinch" who stole Thanksgiving, in the spring of 1941 Roosevelt publicly admitted he had made an error in judgment and returned the holiday to the last Thursday in November.

Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
by Charles Panati / Paperback - 480 pages Reissue edition (September 1989) / HarperCollins
Discover the fascinating stories behind the origins of over 500 everyday items, expressions and customs.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page last revised on November 2nd, 2001
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