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A Thanksgiving history lesson

November 28, 2019 at 6:00 a.m.
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, depicted in an oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe in 1914.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Information from this article was drawn from the various websites of Time magazine and

Thanksgiving traditions in the United States may vary from one region of the country to another, but it is generally agreed these customs all originated with a feast in 1621 shared by the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians.

That year, the colonists and Indians shared an autumn feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It was not until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.


Students of history will remember that in September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers - an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith, and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World.

After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, in November they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay.

A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England, and began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims.

Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease. The Mayflower sailed back to England in April 1621. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. Most died from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the harsh New England weather.

In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, beans, and squash; to extract sap from maple trees; catch fish and gather shellfish in the rivers; hunt local animals; and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoags, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In Novemer 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Gov. William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

Now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving” - although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time - the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Gov. Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer.

Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.


The Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623, marking the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Gov. Bradford to call for a religious feast.

Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the U.S. In it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors, John Adams and James Masion, also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition.

In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale, author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” - launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents, and other politicians. Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.

It was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as “Franksgiving,” was met with passionate opposition and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.


In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends.

Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been offered when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird -- whether roasted, baked, or deep-fried -- on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.

Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the U.S. Presented by Macy’s Department Store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some two to three million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.


The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a tradition in itself.

The first parade was a procession created in 1924 by Macy’s employees eager to celebrate Christmas and draw attention to their department store. The employees marched six miles, from Harlem to Herald’s Square, dressed as clowns, knights, and cowboys. Marching bands and animals from the Central Park Zoo accompanied the parade’s first floats: “The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe,” “Miss Muffet,” and “Red Riding Hood.” The event attracted a quarter of a million people and was deemed a roaring success. Macy’s decided to make it an annual event.

In 1927, Felix the Cat became the first official parade balloon. Most balloon characters take the form of popular comics or cartoons, such as Underdog (1965), Kermit the Frog (1977), and Barney (1994)Walt Disney got into the action in 1934, with the first Mickey and Minnie Mouse balloons. But the character with the most balloons has been Snoopy. Charles Schultz’ floppy-eared mutt has gone through several balloon changes since his debut in 1968.

In 1933, the parade attendance hit one million.

Floats were pulled by horses until 1939, when NBC broadcast the parade for the first time. The parade was suspended between 1942-44 when the balloons were recycled into 650 pounds of rubber and donated to the war effort. New Yorkers were so overjoyed by the return of the parade in 1945 that over two million people turned out for the event.


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