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What Is the History of Thanksgiving?

We come together every fourth Thursday in November for one common purpose — to give thanks to God. Millions of voices will be raised in thanks for all the blessings we have been given by Him. A blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

Gourds and pumpkins on a Thanksgiving table

Without any doubt, Thanksgiving Day is one of the most iconic of all American public holidays. According to the Harris Poll, Thanksgiving trails only Christmas as the favorite holiday of Americans. Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies, football, eating too much, family gatherings — all a part of the Thanksgiving celebration we have come to know.

Just perhaps, one of the few meals at which so many will pray blessings and give thanks over the meal before partaking. All a part of the American tradition. And, for those of us who are a bit older than others, memories of this holiday have little changed since our childhood.

Alexander Hamilton has been reported to have once said, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day” and boy has that become reality. According to the National Turkey Federation, somewhere between 45 to 46 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving.

Goodness, I couldn’t even have guessed that many turkeys even existed, almost equal to the entire population of Spain! There is even a story, based on a letter sent to his daughter, that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey over the bald eagle to be the national bird.

And it isn’t just turkey. Americans consume between 2,500 and 4,500 calories at the Thanksgiving table — or the equivalent of eating between four and eight Big Macs in a single sitting. Ugh. We consume some 80 million pounds of cranberries, including more than five million gallons of jellied cranberry.

And that’s not to mention the potatoes, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole. Just imagine how many cans of cream of mushroom soup are sold!

So…obviously, we eat a lot. But what are the roots of the holiday we celebrate? What is the truth behind its history, and its transition into the phenomenon it has become? What is the true purpose of Thanksgiving? More importantly, what ought it mean to us today?

To help you in thanking God, we created a 30 Days of Gratitude Prayer Guide HERE. Download and print this guide to keep with you as a reminder of God's love and promises.

Thanksgiving’s Blurred History

For generations, the history of the first Thanksgiving event has been passed down within families and in grade schools. It has been widely taught — and widely believed — that the first Thanksgiving took place circa October 1621. A group of English Pilgrims, Puritans, had migrated to escape religious persecution.

These were members of what was then a rather radical separatist church, who found the Church of England corrupt. Prior to coming to America, the group spent several years living in Holland, as they were indeed being persecuted for holding clandestine services not sanctioned by the Church of England.

However, simply that the Puritans left England to escape religious persecution did not mean they believed in religious tolerance. Their society was a theocracy, which governed every aspect of their lives. Their commitment to their traditions, their festivals, and days of celebration was extremely strong — bred into their religion.

As the story goes, these Pilgrims had settled in an area called the Plymouth Colony, in New England. After living much of the winter onboard the ships used to travel to the New World, they chose to celebrate their newfound religious freedom as well as their first harvest in their new home.

The celebration took place alongside 90 or so new-found indigenous friends in their new land — members of the local tribe, who had taught the settlers how to cultivate the land and fish in the rivers. As the lore goes, the groups came together to enjoy a celebratory feast of thanks.

We would be remiss however if we did not also state there are those who disagree with the American lore of Thanksgiving. There are those who say that the Pilgrims were anything but friendly to the Native Americans, and the conflict was often bloody and cruel.

Others say the local tribe — the rarely identified and little-known Wampanoag tribe — were anything but friendly with Europeans and served a selfish purpose.

The story many of us grew up with paints a picture of these new Americans starting a wonderful tradition of giving thanks alongside those indigenous Americans who had befriended them.

Whether truth or folkloric tradition, however, is somewhat irrelevant to what we celebrate today, and the intent of celebrating a day, a season, dedicated to giving thanks.

Thanksgiving’s Deeper Roots

In Britain, the idea of the American Thanksgiving holiday is often met with some mix of confusion, disdain, acceptance — you name it. This perhaps could be attributed to the belief that it was escapees from England who founded the concept. The irony is, in many ways, this American festival actually sprang out of the history and customs of Britain.

A celebratory harvest festival had been part of the fabric of British society since pre-Christian times. Saxons would come together every autumn to eat supper, fashion straw dolls, and harvest corn and other products. The Pilgrims — regardless of which “truth” you choose to believe — were simply following their own traditions and cultural norms they had grown up with, just as we do today.

Festivals of communal thanksgiving became popular in the aftermath of the English Reformation. The actions of Henry VIII gave rise to Days of Thanksgiving, to celebrate perceived acts of providence.

In other words, acts of God. For example, Days of Thanksgiving were celebrated after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. When the English Pilgrims held their festival, they were following their familiar culture of thanksgiving for Providential blessings. Blessings of God.

But the English were not the only influence on Thanksgiving in America. Harvest festivals were celebrated by other European settlers, and similar customs were followed by some Native Americans long before Europeans arrived.

Even so, it was more than a hundred years after that very first Thanksgiving that George Washington, in 1789, issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation — inviting Americans to thank God for their safety and happiness.

Then, almost another 100 years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln formally made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday on the final Thursday of November — later fixed as the fourth Thursday by FDR in 1941.

Thanksgiving’s One Common Purpose

Make no mistake, it is not the Pilgrims we celebrate, nor their relationship with the indigenous people around them. It is not the landing at Plymouth or any other such historical event.

We no longer celebrate the bountiful autumn harvest. It is not to signify the start of the “holiday season” — Thanksgiving is not pre-Christmas. None of this.

We come together every fourth Thursday in November for one common purpose — to give thanks to God. Millions of voices will be raised in thanks for all the blessings we have been given by Him.

Regardless of which “truth” you choose to believe about that day with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans — for us, today, it does not matter. Not in this context anyway.

We are called to live a life of thanks (Psalm 95:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:18) and is a wonderful, daily practice. But once every year we get to come together with friends, family, and all our loved ones to give those thanks together. We come together as a nation. To celebrate together. To thank the Lord our God.

So yes — we will indeed come together to watch football, eat too much turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. But most importantly, we will join hands and in one voice thank God for his love; for his grace; for his Son; and for his continued blessings on every one of us.

A blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

For further reading:

Can the Foundations of Thanksgiving Be Found in the Bible?

Is Thanksgiving Truly a Christian Holiday?

What Happened on the First Thanksgiving?

When Is Thanksgiving in 2021? Holiday Date, Origin, and Meaning

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/BrianAJackson

SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins – an easy-to-read, conversational-toned search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Grandchamp offers perspective as an everyday guy on the very same journey as his readers and listeners – as a disciple of Christ Jesus, and learning life's lessons along the way.