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Thanksgiving Day (U.S.) is celebrated on November 23, 2023. Why was Thanksgiving proclaimed a day of honor by both Washington and Lincoln? No, it’s not about a Pilgrim feast. (Speaking of Pilgrims, what ever happened to them?) Learn more about the meaning of Thanksgiving, plus find trivia, recipes, folklore, and more.
When Is Thanksgiving 2023?
The United States celebrates Thanksgiving as a national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. In 2023, Thanksgiving 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 Thanksgiving can occur is November 22; the latest is November 28.
History of Thanksgiving
Native Americans in North America celebrated harvest festivals for centuries before Thanksgiving was formally established in the United States. Colonial services for these festivals date back to the late 16th century. The autumnal feasts celebrated the harvest of crops after a season of bountiful growth.
In the 1600s, settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia had feasts to thank for surviving, fertile fields, and their faith. The Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, had their infamous Thanksgiving feast in 1621 with the Wampanoag Native Americans.
This three-day feast is considered the ”first” Thanksgiving celebration 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, individual colonies and states celebrated days of thanksgiving.
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 freer 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 misadventures and more farewells, these brave 102 souls departed on 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 is North America’s oldest continuously published periodical.
Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday
The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was observed 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, no further presidential proclamations marked Thanksgiving until the Civil War of the 1860s.
It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.
Article from Almanac.com