1621: the Primary Source
–Edward Winslow December 11th 1621
Thanksgiving vs Harvest Celebration
If one were to ask a 17th century person what a day of thanksgiving was, the answer would not sound much like the celebration that took place in New Plymouth in 1621 that has become known as the “First Thanksgiving”.
Days of thanksgiving and days of humiliation were religious observances that could be called for by a magistrate, church, or head of household for a number of different reasons; the former to give thanks to God for something and the latter to humble oneself before God to beseech for aid. Both of these holidays were filled with sermons, prayer, and quite often fasting.
The description of the “First Thanksgiving” with its multiple days of games and feasting instead sounds like a more secular harvest celebration which were popular all over England. However even a secular celebration, especially one held by the reformed church Pilgrims, would contain many prayers and thanksgivings to God, so it is easy to see why the event would become known as Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving: A Timeline of Significant Dates
- 1621 – The “First Thanksgiving” is held in Plymouth. This event which lasted 3 days was recorded in a letter from Edward Winslow to his friend in England.
- 1789 – President George Washington declares the first national day of Thanksgiving for Thursday November 11th.
- 1837 – Sarah Josepha Hale begins her campaign to get Thanksgiving recognized as an annual national holiday, with a set date.
- 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln declares a national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. From this year forward, each president will annually declare a national Thanksgiving usually in late November.
- 1864 – The Union League of New York helps organize a massive campaign to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops. This successful effort helps spread the still predominantly New England holiday around the country.
- 1876 – The Intercollegiate Football Association holds a Thanksgiving day football game between Yale and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in Hoboken, New Jersey. Football and Thanksgiving becomes an annual tradition. The tradition eventually become national with the NFL hosting games at both Detroit and Dallas each year.
- 1920 – The first Thanksgiving Day parade is organized by the local department stores in Philadelphia on November 25th. Other cities and businesses follow suit, including Macy’s in NYC, and Thanksgiving Day parades become a Thanksgiving tradition.
- 1941 – Thanksgiving becomes federally recognized as a national holiday that occurs each year on the 4th Thursday of November.
- 1970 – The first “Day of Mourning” is held in Plymouth MA. This annual protest is organized by the United American Indians of New England. This protest seeks to draw attention to the past and continuing oppression and racism faced by Indigenous People in the US.
- 2021 – The 400th Anniversary of the “The First Thanksgiving” harvest celebration.