In a 1789 proclamation, President George 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” by observing a day of thanksgiving. Devoting a day to “public thanksgiving and prayer,” as Washington called it, became a yearly tradition in many communities.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863. In that year, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. He asked his fellow citizens to “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise …”
It was not until 1941 that Congress designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, thus creating a federal holiday.
However official, the idea of a special day for giving thanks was not born of presidential proclamations. Native American harvest festivals had been celebrated for centuries, and colonial services dated back to the late 16th century. Thanksgiving Day, as we know it today, began in the early 1600s when 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 Plymouth, Massachusetts, who feasted for 3 days with the Wampanoag people in 1621.
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.