All You Need to Know About…Thanksgiving


2016 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Thanksgiving is a time to sit around a table with friends and family, eat delicious food, and be grateful for everything you have. In school, we are taught that the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, Massachusetts on a ship called the Mayflower and formed a colony here. The local Wampanoag tribe helped them survive their first year of freezing cold temperatures and low supplies of food, including teaching them how to plant and harvest crops like corn. To celebrate their first successful harvest, the Pilgrims and Indians had a big feast that lasted three days. But the holiday has changed quite a bit since it was first created.

There are no official records of the First Thanksgiving, but historians have studied other accounts from people back then that help us infer what did and didn’t happen. For one, turkey was probably not on the menu. According to the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission to prepare for the feast, so most likely they had geese or duck of some sort. He also says that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Potatoes, vegetables, corn mush, and stewed pumpkin would also have been on the menu, but seeing as no one had an oven in those days and the Mayflower’s sugar supply was diminished, they would not have eaten pies and cakes like we do today.

Before the inaugural Thanksgiving in 1621, there had been other celebrations in America honoring a good harvest or safe travel. This makes the true origin of the holiday very controversial. We do know, however, that it began with ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who paid tributes to their gods after the fall harvest. Also, after the first Thanksgiving, a Pequot tribe in Mystic, Connecticut was massacred while having their own Thanksgiving, called the “Green Corn Festival”. Before dawn, a band of Puritans descended on their village, shooting, clubbing, and burning alive over 700 native men, women, and children. In 1637, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop proclaimed his gratitude to God for the destruction of the defenseless Pequot village. Thereafter, massacres of Native Americans were followed by “days of thanksgiving”. This shows that the relationship between the Indians and European settlers was not the friendliest, but rather they tolerated their alliance for the sake of survival.
In 1789, George Washington made a proclamation for the country to give thanks for the end of the Revolutionary War. Everyone had days for Thanksgiving, but each state decided when its citizens would celebrate. New York became the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and scheduled it as the last Thursday in November. The rest is history! (Get it?)

Today, the holiday centers around cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Although turkey may or may not have been at the first Thanksgiving, nearly 90% of Americans eat it for the holiday every year. Other traditional foods include mashed potatoes, stuffing (and gravy), cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It is also quite common for people to volunteer to hold food drives or host free dinners for the less fortunate.

Parades are an integral part of Thanksgiving celebrations in towns and cities across the country, too. The most famous one is held in New York City, and has been presented by Macy’s department store since 1924. Two to three million spectators come to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade’s countless performers and elaborate floats as they march down the 2.5-mile route through the city.

One last popular tradition for the holiday is the annual Turkey Pardoning Ritual. It began in the mid-20th century, where the president of the United States “pardons” a few Thanksgiving turkeys each year. The birds that are pardoned are saved from slaughter and sent to a farm for retirement. Some U.S. governors perform this ceremony as well.