Is Thanksgiving an American Holiday?

by CiCi
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Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States, is a holiday deeply entrenched in American culture and tradition. While its historical roots, cultural significance, and evolution are distinctly American, understanding its broader implications and influence requires an exploration of its origins, traditions, and contemporary practices. This article delves into the question of whether Thanksgiving is an American holiday by examining its history, significance, and the ways in which it has shaped and been shaped by American society.

The Historical Roots of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving’s origins trace back to the early 17th century, when European settlers, primarily English Pilgrims, and Native American tribes came into contact. The commonly accepted narrative centers around the 1621 feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This gathering is often regarded as the first Thanksgiving, marking a celebration of the Pilgrims’ successful harvest and their gratitude for the assistance provided by the Native Americans.


However, this simplistic story glosses over the complexities of the relationship between the European settlers and the Native American tribes. The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, arrived in North America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. They faced harsh conditions, with many succumbing to disease and starvation during their first winter. The survival of the Pilgrims was largely due to the help of the Wampanoag people, who taught them crucial agricultural skills.


The 1621 feast was likely a three-day event involving 53 Pilgrims and approximately 90 Wampanoag members, including their leader, Massasoit. The celebration included a variety of foods, some of which were introduced by the Native Americans. This feast, however, was not called “Thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims, who held days of thanksgiving as religious observances of prayer and fasting rather than feasting.

The Evolution of Thanksgiving

The journey from a three-day harvest feast to a national holiday spans several centuries, during which Thanksgiving evolved significantly. The Pilgrims held their own thanksgivings in the years following 1621, often in response to specific events like the end of droughts or victories in battles. These were solemn religious observances rather than annual celebrations.

The idea of an annual Thanksgiving holiday began to take shape in the late 18th century. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress issued proclamations for days of thanksgiving to commemorate victories over the British. George Washington, the first President of the United States, proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving in 1789 to give thanks for the Constitution’s ratification. However, this was a one-time event and did not establish a recurring holiday.

The campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday gained momentum in the mid-19th century, largely due to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale advocated for a national day of thanksgiving through her editorials and letters to political leaders. Her persistence paid off when President Abraham Lincoln, seeking to unite the country during the Civil War, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863. Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November for the holiday, a tradition that continued until President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in 1939, and Congress made it official in 1941.

Thanksgiving as a Reflection of American Values

Thanksgiving embodies several core American values, including gratitude, family, and community. The holiday is marked by gatherings of family and friends who share a festive meal, often featuring turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. This focus on family and communal bonds reflects the importance placed on familial and social connections in American culture.

The concept of gratitude is central to Thanksgiving. The holiday encourages Americans to reflect on their blessings and express appreciation for the good things in their lives. This emphasis on gratitude has been linked to positive psychological and social outcomes, fostering a sense of well-being and community.

Moreover, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the multicultural roots of American society. The original feast was a coming together of different cultures—European settlers and Native Americans—highlighting themes of cooperation and mutual aid. While the relationship between these groups was fraught with conflict and exploitation, the ideal of different peoples coming together in peace and sharing remains a powerful symbol in American culture.

The Commercialization and Modern Celebrations of Thanksgiving

In contemporary America, Thanksgiving has taken on additional layers of meaning and practice. The holiday is marked by several traditions that have become integral to the celebration.

One of the most notable is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, held annually in New York City since 1924. This parade features giant balloons, elaborate floats, marching bands, and performances, drawing millions of spectators both in person and via television broadcasts. The parade has become a symbol of the holiday’s festive spirit and is a major event in American popular culture.

Football also plays a significant role in Thanksgiving celebrations. The National Football League (NFL) hosts several games on Thanksgiving Day, a tradition dating back to the early 20th century. These games are a staple of the holiday for many Americans, providing entertainment and an additional reason for family and friends to gather.

In recent decades, the day after Thanksgiving has become synonymous with Black Friday, a major shopping event that marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Retailers offer significant discounts, and consumers flock to stores, making it one of the busiest shopping days of the year. This commercialization of Thanksgiving weekend highlights the consumer-oriented aspect of American culture.

Despite these modern additions, the core elements of Thanksgiving remain focused on family, gratitude, and community. Many Americans volunteer at soup kitchens or participate in food drives, emphasizing the holiday’s spirit of giving and support for those in need.

The Impact of Thanksgiving on Native American Communities

While Thanksgiving is a time of celebration for many Americans, it is also a period of reflection and mourning for some Native American communities. The arrival of European settlers, and the subsequent colonization, brought significant disruption, displacement, and suffering to Indigenous peoples. For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the injustices and atrocities that accompanied European settlement.

Since 1970, some Native American groups have observed a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. This event, held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, serves as a protest against the historical and ongoing injustices faced by Native American communities. It is a day for honoring Native ancestors and raising awareness about the true history of Thanksgiving and the challenges that Indigenous peoples continue to face.

Thanksgiving in a Global Context

While Thanksgiving is distinctly American in its origin and traditions, it has influenced and been adopted by other countries in various forms. Canada, for instance, celebrates its own Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. Canadian Thanksgiving also commemorates the harvest and has historical roots dating back to English explorer Martin Frobisher’s 1578 expedition.

Other countries, such as Liberia and certain Caribbean nations, celebrate Thanksgiving due to historical connections with the United States. Additionally, American expatriates and international communities with ties to the U.S. often observe Thanksgiving, adapting the holiday to local contexts while retaining its central themes of gratitude and community.

See also:What Are The Top 3 Holidays In The World


In conclusion, Thanksgiving is undeniably an American holiday, deeply embedded in the nation’s history, culture, and values. Its origins in the early encounters between European settlers and Native Americans, its evolution through centuries of change, and its contemporary significance all reflect the complex tapestry of American society. While the holiday is a time of celebration and gratitude for many, it is also a period of reflection on the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization on Native American communities.

Thanksgiving’s influence extends beyond the United States, with variations of the holiday observed in other countries. However, its unique blend of historical significance, cultural traditions, and modern practices firmly roots Thanksgiving as an American holiday. As Americans gather to celebrate, it is important to recognize both the positive aspects of the holiday and the need for a more inclusive understanding of its history. By doing so, Thanksgiving can continue to be a meaningful and reflective occasion that honors the past while embracing the values of gratitude, community, and togetherness that define it.


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