Thanksgiving: From the Pilgrims to the Present

Ever wonder why we celebrate Thanksgiving when and how we do? Here’s a crash course we like to call Thanksgiving 101.

After a difficult first year in America, the Mayflower pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1621 in Salem, Massachusetts. They did this to give thanks for their first successful harvest and celebrated for three whole days. The celebration took place sometime around October through to December of that year.

And what did they feast on? Native Americans were invited as guests to a feast that was likely held outside (because there weren’t any large buildings in which to hold celebrations) and which probably featured stuffed turkey and pumpkin. Potatoes were not served because many Europeans believed at the time that they were poisonous. While the pilgrims’ feast became the basis for our current Thanksgiving day traditions, it was not repeated the following year and only began to be incorporated into American culture in 1777, when General George Washington and his troops marked the new nation’s first Thanksgiving at Valley Forge.

In 1789, President Washington declared November 26 a national day of thanks and prayer. Thanksgiving then fell out of the holiday calendar until 1863, when Lincoln resumed the tradition. But it was largely rejected in the South due to the Civil War and was not embraced in the southern states until years later. Finally in 1941, President Roosevelt declared every fourth Thursday in November as the nation’s day of Thanksgiving, firmly establishing the holiday as a cornerstone of American culture.