In 2018, U.S. Thanksgiving takes place on Thursday, November 22. (Canadian Thanksgiving is on Monday, October 8.) Here’s a brief history of this all-important feast day—plus, why turkey is traditional and other trivia, weather folklore, crafts, poetry, and more.
Thanksgiving in the United States is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated the second Monday in October.
|Year||U.S. Thanksgiving||Canadian Thanksgiving|
|2017||Thursday, November 23||Monday, October 9|
|2018||Thursday, November 22||Monday, October 8|
|2019||Thursday, November 28||Monday, October 14|
A Brief Thanksgiving History
Native American harvest festivals had been celebrated for centuries, and colonial services dated back to the late 16th century. In the early 1600s, settlers in both Massachusetts and Virginia came together to give thanks for their survival, for the fertility of their fields, and for their faith. The most widely known early Thanksgiving is that of the Pilgrims in Plimoth, Massachusetts, who feasted for 3 days with the Wampanoag people in 1621.
However, the first national holiday of Thanksgiving was observed for a slightly different reason—in honor of the creation of the new United States Constitution. In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation designating November 26 of that year as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” to recognize the role of providence in creating the new United States and the new federal Constitution. Washington was in his first term as president, and a young nation had just emerged successfully from the Revolution. Washington called on the people of the United States to acknowledge God for affording them “an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” This was the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.
While Thanksgiving became a yearly tradition in many communities—celebrated on different months and days that suited them—it was not a federal government holiday. Thomas Jefferson and many subsequent presidents felt that a public religious demonstration of piety was not appropriate for a government type of holiday in a country based in part on the separation of church and state. While religious thanksgiving services continued, there were no further presidential proclamations marking Thanksgiving until the Civil War of the 1860s.
In 1863, President Lincoln made a proclamation marking Thursday, November 26, 1863 as Thanksgiving. Lincoln’s proclamation harkened back to Washington’s, as he was also giving thanks to God following a bloody military confrontation. In this case, Lincoln was expressing gratitude to God and thanks to the Army for emerging successfully from the Battle of Gettysburg. He enumerated the blessings of the American people and called upon his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving from the fourth to the third Thursday in November! It was the tail-end of the Depression, and Roosevelt’s goal was to create more shopping days before Christmas and to give the economy a boost. However, many people continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November.
In 1941, to end any confusion, the president and Congress established Thanksgiving as a United States federal holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
Read more about Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” who helped turn this historic feast into a national holiday.Of course, Thanksgiving is not born of presidential proclamations.
Note that Thanksgiving Day in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday in October and has different origins. The first Canadian Thanksgiving Day was observed on April 15, 1872, to celebrate the recovery of the prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness.
In many North American households today, the Thanksgiving celebration centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends.
Why is Thanksgiving Celebrated With Turkey?
Turkey has become the traditional Thanksgiving fare because at one time it was a rare treat. During the 1830s, an eight- to ten-pound bird cost a day’s wages. Even though turkeys are affordable today, they still remain a celebratory symbol of bounty. In fact, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin ate roast turkey in foil packets for their first meal on the Moon.
See all of our Thanksgiving trivia and fun facts!
- Turkey Trivia
- The Great Yam Scam
- Cranberry Trivia
- Historic Thanksgiving Storms
- Why Do We Eat Turkey at Thanksgiving?
- Why We Can Feel Good Eating Thanksgiving Food!
Thanksgiving Weather Folklore
- Turkeys perched on trees and refusing to descend indicates snow.
- If the first snow sticks to the trees, it foretells a bountiful harvest.
- If sheep feed facing downhill, watch for a snowstorm.
- Thunder in November indicates a fertile year to come.
- If there be ice in November that will bear a duck, there will be nothing thereafter but sleet and muck.
- As November 21st, so the winter.
- When the winter is early, it will not be late.
Thanksgiving Poems and Quotes
Perhaps these poems and quotes will come in handy for your Thanksgiving card!
Over the river and through the wood—
Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!
–Lydia Maria Child
Orchards have shared their treasures,
The fields, their yellow grain,
So open wide the doorway–
Thanksgiving comes again!
Ah! On Thanksgiving Day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South, come the pilgrim and guest,
What moistens the lip, and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past like the rich pumpkin pie?
–J. G. Whittier
“An optimist is a person who starts a new diet on Thanksgiving Day.” –Irv Kupcinet, American columnist (1912–2003)
“Radical historians now tell the story of Thanksgiving from the point of view of the turkey.” –Mason Cooley, U.S. aphorist
- Thanksgiving Recipes—including some historically-inspired dishes.
- Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Recipes—to save you some time on the day-of!
- How to Cook a Turkey—the basics of cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
- Thanksgiving Dessert Recipes—absolutely mouthwatering.
- Thanksgiving Leftovers—because the leftovers are the best part!
We give thanks to you, our Almanac community, and wish you a Thanksgiving feast that is both filling and full of grace this year!
What Thanksgiving traditions do you follow in your family? Let us know in the comments!