Emily VanSchmus for Better Homes & Gardens on the History of Thanksgiving.
Each November we gather with our families and chow down on roasted turkey, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce. It’s a decades-long American tradition with a complicated and controversial past, but there are a few things everyone should know about the holiday—such as why we eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner. And while you might have learned that it began with the landing of the Mayflower, we actually have Abraham Lincoln to thank for making Thanksgiving a holiday.
While this year we may still be celebrating turkey day while wearing Thanksgiving-theme face masks and scaling down our traditional Thanksgiving menu, there’s still plenty to be thankful for. Brush up on the history of the holiday and quiz your family members on a few fun Thanksgiving trivia facts as you spend the day together.
When Is Thanksgiving 2021?
The actual date of Thanksgiving changes every year because it’s celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. This year, Thanksgiving is Thursday, November 25, 2021.
The History of Thanksgiving
It’s a common misconception that the first Thanksgiving was held the same year that the colonists came to America, but history tells us that’s not the case. The Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. After a long and difficult year (which included deathly illness and conflict between the colonists and the Indigenous people), the Plymouth colony experienced its first successful harvest in the fall of 1621. The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a three-day-long feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate that harvest. They ate duck and deer meat roasted over a fire, corn ground into porridge, seafood, cabbage, and squash. The event included activities such as ball games, target shooting, singing, and dancing.
Everything we know about the first Thanksgiving comes from the only written account of this first meal, which was a journal written by William Bradford in 1651. According to his accounts, Turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes were not included on the menu.
Many well-known people attended the first Thanksgiving celebration, including Wampanoag leader Massasoit, Squanto (a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who taught the Pilgrims to plant native crops), Governor William Bradford, Captain Myles Standish, and religious leader William Brewster.
For more than 100 years, American settlers celebrated Turkey Day informally. An official Thanksgiving Day occurred in 1777, when George Washington declared December 18th a day for “solemn thanksgiving and praise.” It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the modern Thanksgiving holiday took shape. Following a 36-year letter-writing campaign by magazine editor Sarah Hale, Abraham Lincoln finally made Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863.
The only glitch in Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt changed the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday to extend the Christmas shopping season. After public outrage, he signed legislation in 1941 to change it back. Since then, we’ve carved the turkey and devoured green bean casserole on the fourth Thursday of each November.