Thanksgiving is an holiday celebrated in North America. It is traditionally designated as a time to give thanks for the autumn harvest, and the holiday occurs during the late autumn. In the United States, the holiday is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, where the harvest is generally earlier in the year, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday in October.
Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated by a family feast. In the United States, it is an important family holiday, and people often travel across the country to be with family members for the holiday. Although the holiday is celebrated on Thursday, it is common for employees to have Friday off as well.
American tradition associates their holiday with a feast carried out by the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. Canadians trace their Thanksgiving holiday to a feast held by Martin Frobisher in Newfoundland in 1578. It is also probable that American loyalists who emigrated to Canada after American indpendence brought with them many of their Thanksgiving traditions.
Many of the details of the American Thanksgiving story are myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s as part of the effort to forge a common national identity in the melting pot of new immigrants. By modern standards the Puritans were fundamentalist extremist who acted with cruelty towards those who did not profess their faith. In particular, Native Americans today often regard this holiday not as something for which they should be thankful but rather the beginning of the tragic process that stole their land and decimated their population.
The History of Thanksgiving in the United States
Two American colonists have personal accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving:
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation :
"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their house and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned by true reports."
Edward Winslow, Mourt's Relation :
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
Thanksgiving wasn't held again until 1623. It followed a drought, prayers for rain and a subsequent rain shower.
Thanksgiving was held again in Massachusetts in 1676 in part as a celebration of victory over native tribes in the region. With that as precedent, George Washington proclaimed the next Thanksgiving in 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga. He again proclaimed it in 1789.
Abraham Lincoln set the holiday as a regular yearly event for the final Thursday of November in 1863.
In 1941, Congress established that the holiday would be annual and would occur on the fourth Thursday of November rather than the last day of November because occasionally the last Thursday was the fifth Thursday and that cut into the holiday shopping season.