What are the Origins of Thanksgiving

by CiCi
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Thanksgiving stands as one of the most cherished and widely celebrated holidays in the United States. Every fourth Thursday of November, families across the nation gather to share a bountiful feast and express gratitude for the blessings bestowed upon them. While the modern Thanksgiving is often associated with turkey, pumpkin pie, and football, its roots run deep into the annals of American history. To truly appreciate the significance of this holiday, one must delve into its origins, which intertwine with the complex tapestry of Native American and European interactions. In this article, we embark on a historical journey to explore how the American holiday of Thanksgiving began.

The Native American Harvest Festivals

Long before the arrival of European settlers, indigenous peoples across North America celebrated bountiful harvests with feasts and ceremonies. These harvest festivals varied among different tribes and nations, reflecting their unique cultures, traditions, and agricultural practices. For many Native American communities, giving thanks for the earth’s abundance was not confined to a single day but was woven into the fabric of daily life.


Among the most well-known harvest celebrations was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tradition of the Green Corn Ceremony. Held in late summer or early fall, this ceremony marked the ripening of the corn crop, a staple food for many indigenous peoples. Participants gathered to give thanks to the Creator for the gift of corn and to pray for continued abundance and prosperity.


Similarly, the Wampanoag people of present-day Massachusetts observed a harvest festival known as the “New England’s Indian Summer.” This event, which predates the arrival of the Pilgrims, brought together Wampanoag families and neighboring tribes to celebrate the corn harvest with feasting, games, and cultural performances.

European Influence: The Pilgrims and the Mayflower

The story of Thanksgiving as it is commonly told in American folklore traces back to the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1620. Seeking religious freedom, the Pilgrims embarked on a perilous journey aboard the Mayflower, enduring harsh conditions and months at sea before reaching the shores of present-day Massachusetts.

Arriving in the New World in late November, the Pilgrims faced a harsh and unfamiliar landscape. With winter fast approaching, they struggled to survive, facing hunger, disease, and exposure. It was during this time of hardship that the Pilgrims encountered the Wampanoag people, who played a crucial role in their survival and ultimately in the origins of Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving: A Shared Feast

In the autumn of 1621, following their first successful harvest in the New World, the Pilgrims organized a feast to give thanks to God for His provision. They invited their Wampanoag allies to join them in celebration, thus marking the beginnings of what would later become known as Thanksgiving.

Accounts of the first Thanksgiving vary, with few historical records providing detailed descriptions of the event. However, primary sources suggest that the feast lasted for several days and included a variety of foods, including venison, waterfowl, fish, corn, squash, and berries. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag likely contributed dishes from their respective culinary traditions, creating a shared meal that symbolized unity and cooperation.

It’s important to recognize that the first Thanksgiving was not just a celebration of a successful harvest but also a diplomatic gathering between two distinct cultures. The presence of the Wampanoag at the feast represents an early example of intercultural exchange and cooperation in colonial America.

Thanksgiving in Early America

In the years following the first Thanksgiving, the holiday did not yet hold the same significance or widespread observance as it does today. While occasional days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by colonial leaders to celebrate specific events or blessings, there was no fixed date or national holiday.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Thanksgiving began to take on a more prominent role in American culture. Influenced by the writings of authors such as Sarah Josepha Hale, who lobbied for a national day of thanksgiving, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first official Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln called upon Americans to unite in gratitude for the blessings of peace, unity, and abundance, even in the face of hardship and division.

The Modern Thanksgiving: Traditions and Symbols

Over time, Thanksgiving has evolved into a beloved national holiday characterized by cherished traditions and symbols. From the iconic Thanksgiving turkey to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, each aspect of the holiday holds its own significance and meaning for millions of Americans.

The Thanksgiving turkey, often the centerpiece of the holiday feast, has become synonymous with abundance and celebration. While turkey was likely not the main dish at the first Thanksgiving, it has since become a culinary tradition passed down through generations. Today, many families enjoy roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, accompanied by an array of side dishes and desserts.

Another enduring symbol of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty, representing the abundance of the harvest season. Originating in ancient Greek mythology, the cornucopia has become a ubiquitous decoration during the Thanksgiving holiday, adorning dinner tables, centerpieces, and festive displays.

See also:The Difference Between U.S. Federal and Public Holidays

Conclusion: Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future

As we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s essential to reflect on the origins of this beloved holiday and the complex history from which it emerged. Thanksgiving is not just a day of feasting and football but a time to honor the resilience, diversity, and interconnectedness of American society.

While the story of the first Thanksgiving often focuses on the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, it’s crucial to recognize that the holiday’s roots extend far beyond a single event or group of people. Thanksgiving is a reflection of the ongoing dialogue between Native American and European cultures, as well as the contributions of countless immigrant communities who have shaped the American experience.

As we look to the future, let us strive to uphold the spirit of gratitude, generosity, and inclusivity that lies at the heart of Thanksgiving. By honoring the past and embracing the diversity of our nation, we can ensure that Thanksgiving remains a celebration of unity and hope for generations to come.


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