What’s the First Celebrated Holiday in America

by CiCi
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When we consider the tapestry of American holidays, a variety of celebrations come to mind, each imbued with unique traditions and histories. Among them, Thanksgiving stands out as one of the most universally recognized and cherished holidays.Its origins are deeply rooted in the early interactions between Native Americans and European settlers, making it a profound representation of American heritage and culture. To truly appreciate the significance of Thanksgiving, it’s essential to explore its historical context, the evolution of its traditions, and its impact on contemporary society.

The Historical Context of Thanksgiving

Early European Settlements and Native American Encounters

The story of Thanksgiving is closely tied to the arrival of the Pilgrims in North America. In 1620, a group of English Puritans, seeking religious freedom, embarked on a perilous journey aboard the Mayflower. After a grueling voyage across the Atlantic, they landed at Plymouth Rock, in present-day Massachusetts, in December of that year.


The Pilgrims’ initial months in the New World were marked by extreme hardship. Facing harsh winter conditions, inadequate shelter, and limited food supplies, nearly half of the original settlers perished. It was in this dire context that the indigenous Wampanoag people, led by their sachem Massasoit, played a crucial role. Understanding the settlers’ plight, the Wampanoag extended a helping hand, teaching the Pilgrims essential agricultural techniques and sharing their knowledge of the land.


The First Thanksgiving

The pivotal moment came in the autumn of 1621, when the Pilgrims, having reaped a successful harvest, decided to hold a feast of thanksgiving. This event, now famously referred to as the “First Thanksgiving,” was a three-day celebration attended by 53 Pilgrims and approximately 90 Wampanoag people. The feast included a variety of foods, likely featuring venison, fowl, fish, and a selection of fruits and vegetables.

This communal meal symbolized a moment of peace and cooperation between the two groups, highlighting the importance of gratitude and mutual support. However, it is essential to acknowledge that this initial harmony was later overshadowed by subsequent conflicts and tensions as European colonization expanded.

The Evolution of Thanksgiving Traditions

Early Celebrations and Regional Variations

In the years following the 1621 feast, Thanksgiving was not immediately established as an annual tradition. Early celebrations were sporadic and localized, often tied to specific events or circumstances. For instance, settlers would hold days of thanksgiving to mark military victories, bountiful harvests, or periods of good health.

As the American colonies grew, so did the diversity of Thanksgiving observances. Different regions developed their own customs, influenced by local agricultural practices, religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds. In the New England colonies, Thanksgiving became more formalized, with annual proclamations and church services emphasizing gratitude to God for blessings received.

The Influence of Sarah Josepha Hale

One of the key figures in the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent writer and editor. Hale, often referred to as the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” began campaigning for a national day of thanks in the early 19th century. Through her persistent efforts, including numerous letters to politicians and influential articles, she sought to unify the nation around a common celebration.

Hale’s vision was finally realized in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln, amidst the Civil War, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. Lincoln’s proclamation emphasized the need for national unity and gratitude, even in the face of ongoing conflict.

Modern Thanksgiving Celebrations

In the years following Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving gradually evolved into the holiday we recognize today. The traditional meal, often centered around roast turkey, has become a quintessential part of the celebration. Side dishes like stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie reflect both historical and regional influences, creating a diverse culinary tapestry.

Thanksgiving is also marked by a range of customs beyond the feast itself. Parades, such as the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, have become iconic elements of the holiday. Additionally, Thanksgiving football games, both professional and collegiate, draw millions of viewers, further embedding the holiday in American culture.

The Cultural and Social Impact of Thanksgiving

Reflection and Gratitude

At its core, Thanksgiving is a time for reflection and gratitude. Families and friends gather to express their appreciation for the blessings in their lives, fostering a sense of community and connection. This emphasis on gratitude serves as a counterbalance to the often hectic pace of modern life, providing an opportunity for people to pause and appreciate what they have.

Acknowledging Historical Complexities

While Thanksgiving is a celebration of unity and gratitude, it is also important to acknowledge the complex and often painful history that underlies the holiday. For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder of the devastating impact of European colonization, including the displacement, violence, and disease that drastically altered indigenous communities.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to recognize these historical complexities and honor the perspectives of Native Americans. Some people choose to observe a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, reflecting on the losses experienced by indigenous peoples and advocating for greater awareness and understanding of their history and culture.

Thanksgiving in Contemporary Society

Today, Thanksgiving is a multifaceted holiday that holds different meanings for different people. For many, it remains a cherished family tradition, a time to gather, share a meal, and create lasting memories. For others, it serves as an opportunity to engage in acts of charity and community service, extending the spirit of gratitude to those in need.

In addition, Thanksgiving has become a time for celebrating cultural diversity. As America has evolved into a melting pot of cultures, the holiday has incorporated a wide array of traditions and foods from various ethnic backgrounds. This inclusivity reflects the broader narrative of America as a nation built on diverse contributions.

See also: Why Is January 15 A Holiday


Thanksgiving stands as a testament to the enduring values of gratitude, community, and resilience. Its origins in the early interactions between Native Americans and European settlers remind us of the importance of mutual support and cooperation. As the holiday has evolved, it has come to embody a rich tapestry of traditions and meanings, reflecting the diversity and complexity of American society.

By understanding the historical context and ongoing cultural significance of Thanksgiving, we can appreciate its role in shaping the American experience. Whether through traditional feasts, acts of charity, or moments of reflection, Thanksgiving continues to offer a profound opportunity for connection and gratitude, enriching our lives and communities.

In embracing both the celebrations and the historical complexities of Thanksgiving, we honor the full spectrum of our shared heritage, fostering a deeper sense of understanding and unity in the process. As we gather around our tables this Thanksgiving, let us remember the lessons of the past, celebrate the present, and look forward to a future built on mutual respect and gratitude.


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