In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November—this year, on November 26. Why do we celebrate this all-important feast day? Why did the Pilgrims come to America? How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday? Read the brief history and origins of this day—plus, enjoy some fun facts, trivia, and table talk.
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
When Is Thanksgiving Day?
Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States and always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving 2020 occurs on Thursday, November 26.
In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. (Read more about Canadian Thanksgiving here!)
|Year||U.S. Thanksgiving||Canadian Thanksgiving|
|2020||Thursday, November 26||Monday, October 12|
|2021||Thursday, November 25||Monday, October 11|
|2022||Thursday, November 24||Monday, October 10|
|2023||Thursday, November 23||Monday, October 9|
Thanksgiving in the United States
Since 1941, Thanksgiving has been held on the fourth Thursday in November, which means that the actual date of the holiday shifts each year. The earliest date that Thanksgiving can occur on is November 22; the latest, November 28.
Interestingly, President Franklin Roosevelt had decided to move Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third Thursday in November back in 1938. However, this was not a very popular move. (Read more about this story below.)
Thanksgiving at Plymouth
Prior to the formal establishment of Thanksgiving, harvest festivals had been celebrated for centuries by Native Americans, with colonial services dating back to the late 16th century. The autumnal feasts celebrated the harvest of crops after a season of bountiful growth.
As the story goes, it was in the early 1600s when communities of 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 shared an autumn harvest feast with the Wampanoag Native Americans in 1621.
This feast, which lasted for three days, is considered the “first” Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. However, there were other recorded ceremonies of thanks on these lands. In 1565, Spanish explorers and the local Timucua tribe St. Augustine, Florida celebrated a mass of thanksgiving. In 1619, British settlers proclaimed a day of thanksgiving when they reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River.
Of course, the idea of “thanksgiving” for the harvest is as old as time, with records from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Native Americans, too, had a rich tradition of giving thanks at harvesttime feasts long before Europeans appeared on their soil. And well after the Pilgrims, for more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving have been celebrated by individual colonies and states.
How Did the Pilgrims Come to Settle Here?
Initially, when certain men and women of Scrooby, England, were persecuted for separating themselves from the Church of England, they, as Pilgrims, fled to Leiden, Holland. Upon the execution of separatist leader James of Barneveld there on May 13, 1619, they realized that Holland was no more free than England and prepared to go to America.
On July 20, 1620, after putting their plans into effect, they asked for the parting words of their beloved pastor, John Robinson. The next day, they boarded the ship Speedwell, anchored where the canal from Leiden then entered the Maas (or Meuse, a river flowing into the North Sea) at Delftshaven, and sailed for Southampton, England.
After some misadventures and more farewells, these brave 102 souls departed on board the Mayflower on September 6, 1620.
Image by Photos.com/Getty Images
The Mayflower arrived at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of a curved peninsula later named Cape Cod, on November 21 and on that day drew up one of the most significant documents of American history, the Mayflower Compact. The Compact was a constitution formed by the people—the beginning of popular government in the world.
They then explored the lands along the bay formed by the peninsula. On December 22, after holding the first town meeting in America to decide where to build their homes, the Pilgrims went onshore at a site now called Plymouth Rock. There, on the shore above the rock, they settled. After 400 years, their descendants and those of the Puritans are still sailing along.
What Ever Happened to the Pilgrims?
The highlights that follow reveal some of what has transpired for the Pilgrims, their Puritan contemporaries, and/or the descendants of both.
- 1621: over dinner with some of their Native guests, gave thanks for their welfare
- 1621: built a meetinghouse
- 1634: forbade wearing gold and silver lace
- 1639: started a college (Harvard)
- 1640: set up a printing press
- 1647: hanged a “witch”
- 1704: printed the first newspaper, in Boston
- 1721: were inoculated for smallpox
- 1776: again declared themselves to be free and independent
- 1792: no doubt purchased the 1793 first edition of Robert B. Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanac. Today known as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, this book is now in its 229th edition and stands as North America’s oldest continuously published periodical.
Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday
The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was observed for a slightly different reason than celebration of the harvest—it was 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.
Thanksgiving Becomes a Federal Holiday
While Thanksgiving became a yearly tradition in many communities—celebrated on different months and days that suited them—it was not yet 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.
It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November..
A depiction of Thanksgiving in 1858, by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Thanksgiving is oberved the last Thursday in November
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.” As of that year, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving is briefly moved to the third Thursday in November
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last Thursday. 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 last Thursday in November, unhappy that the holiday’s date had been meddled with. You could argue, however, that this helped create the shopping craze known as Black Friday.
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, which is how it stands today!
Of course, Thanksgiving was not born of presidential proclamations. Read about Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” who helped turn this historic feast into a national holiday.
How Is Thanksgiving Different in Canada?
Thanksgiving Day in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday in October and has different origins than the American version of the holiday. The first Thanksgiving meal observed in what is now Canada occurred in 1578, when English explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew held a meal to thank God for granting them safe passage through the wilds of the New World.
Canadians get that Monday off of work in most parts of the country, but in Atlantic Canada (Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador), it’s an optional day off. Some Quebecois may not celebrate the holiday at all.
Today, Canadians often visit with family and friends to celebrate. The Thanksgiving food traditions tend to be pretty similar to their American neighbors: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and cranberry sauce are traditional. Add some maple syrup for a uniquely Canadian twist! See some Maple Syrup recipes.
Canadian football is on the television, and many Canadians get outside for a nice hike or ramble in the woods, since the weather has not yet taken a turn for the worse. Everyone is thankful for the harvest!
Read more about the differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Traditions and Rituals
A bountiful meal featuring turkey has become the traditional Thanksgiving fare, with over 90% of Americans eating the bird on this holidays. But did you know that turkey was at one time a rare treat? During the 1830s, an eight- to ten-pound bird cost a day’s wages!
Even though turkeys are much more 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.
The turkey may or may not have been offered when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. See what the Pilgrims ate and why we eat turkey today.
Other common Thanksgiving traditions in the United States include volunteering for those less fortunate by donating food or time to homeless shelters or those in need. Sometimes, communities hold “turkey trot” runs or parades. And the president of the United States and a number of U.S. governors will often “pardon” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year.
See some of our Thanksgiving trivia and fun facts!
- Turkey Trivia
- The Great Yam Scam
- Cranberry Trivia
- Historic Thanksgiving Storms
- Why We Can Feel Good Eating Thanksgiving Food?
The shared feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people was a bountiful and peaceful one, based on historical records. It was a celebratory feast hosted by Pilgrims who invited their Native American allies in sincere gratitude for a successful harvest after much starvation. It’s also a story of cooperation and trust and peace. Giving thanks was a longstanding and central tradition among both parties.
However, history doesn’t exist in isolation. If we pull back, this was not just about a friendly harvest festival but had much to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace. If we pull back even further, this is also the story of foreign settlers coming to immigrate to territories widely inhabited by native peoples—a long history of bloody conflict, strife, death, and wartime between Native Americans and European settlers seeking to colonize lands.
History is a rich, interwoven, never-ending book that we can all learn more about. To gain a full understanding of events, it is important to research the context. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has some excellent resources about the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday for American Indians.
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 in the coming year.
- 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.
The term “Indian summer” refers to a period of warm weather occurring between November 11 and 20. Read more about Indian summers.
Thanksgiving Recipes: Dinner, Sides, Desserts, and More
Is it your turn to prepare the Thanksgiving meal? Here are a few of our favorite Thanksgiving recipes to give you some inspiration:
- Classic Thanksgiving Recipes—including some historically-inspired dishes.
- Thanksgiving Side Dishes—our favorite sides to accompany that turkey!
- 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!
Thanksgiving Crafts for Kids & Adults
Perfect for kids and great for decorating the home, these holiday crafts are easy and fun!
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!
“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
Today, folks celebrate Thanksgiving for a multitude of reasons. For some, it remains a way to express gratitude for the harvest, for family, or to a higher power; for others, it’s a holiday built upon simply being with family and enjoying delicious food.
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!