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Thanksgiving Day (U.S.) is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November—November 23, 2023. It’s a season for reuniting, sharing a meal, and giving thanks. Do you know the true history of Thanksgiving Day? Who moved the date once and why? Why did the Pilgrims disappear? What did George Washington intend for Thanksgiving to be about? Here’s some trivia and table talk!
When Is Thanksgiving 2022?
Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States and is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. In 2023, it will be observed on Thursday, November 23.
Thanksgiving has been held on the fourth Thursday in November since 1941, 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 is 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.)
Prior to the formal establishment of Thanksgiving in the United States, 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 held feasts 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 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 people of 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. Native American cultures, too, have a rich tradition of giving thanks at harvesttime feasts, which began 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 Delfshaven, and sailed for Southampton, England.
After some misadventures and more farewells, these brave 102 souls departed o board the Mayflower on September 6, 1620.
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.
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 American 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” (Alse Young—the first person to be executed for witchcraft in the Thirteen Colonies)
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 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 a 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.
Thanksgiving is observed on 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 the 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!
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 another 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!
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 united as a family (in person or virtually!) and sharing in a special meal.
A bountiful feast featuring turkey has become the traditional Thanksgiving fare, with over 90% of Americans eating the bird on this holiday. 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.
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:
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 actually had much to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and the 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.
Perhaps these poems and quotes will come in handy for your Thanksgiving card!
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
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! –Unknown
“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
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!