Thanksgiving Day: More Than Football and Turkey

Made an official holiday in 1941, Thanksgiving Day has a long history

Thanksgiving wasn’t always about parades or the Lions, or what type of fowl grandma was going to prepare for dinner, or that Turkey Trot 5k so many run in an attempt to offset the calories consumed during Thanksgiving dinner. It definitely wasn’t always just the day before the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

The first Thanksgiving was a feast held in thanks to God for that year’s harvest at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 — that is, unless you believe the Spanish claim to the holiday.

Feasts celebrating that season’s harvest were nothing new, but that celebration set off what would become Thanksgiving in America.

History says that 53 pilgrims were at the first feast for giving thanks, along with Native Americans from the nearby Wampanoag tribe. The harvest they were celebrating wasn’t exceedingly bountiful, and many pilgrims died the following winter, but nonetheless, men, women and children gathered in reverence and thankfulness for their “plenty.”

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty,” William Bradford wrote in “Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Like many Americans today, the Pilgrims are said to have feasted on turkey that day, but they also ate many other foods that would be considered less typical today. Fowl, deer, fish, walnuts, chestnuts, plums, gooseberries, strawberries, and Indian corn rounded out their dinner tables.

Through trials and devastating winters, Plymouth Plantation survived, and so did the Thanksgiving tradition.

In 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving. Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Madison made subsequent Thanksgiving proclamations.

In the beginning of his Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1789, President Washington wrote:

“Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’”

Like the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, these proclamations called for praise and thankfulness toward God for his blessings. But, these proclaimed days of Thanksgiving were often not in November.

In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving should be held on the last Thursday of November, but he didn’t make it an annual holiday. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress established the Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of the month.

Thanksgiving wasn’t always about taking a nap after eating too much at dinner. It was about thanking God for the blessings He has bestowed on this great country.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.