What Is Thanksgiving?

I always thought that Thanksgiving was just a day to celebrate how thankful people are for their friends, their loved ones and just being alive. When I was asked by John Robinson (the blogger, not the Pilgrim – visit his blog, he will crack you up – link opens in a new tab or window) if we have something similar over here, I looked up just what Thanksgiving celebrates.


It turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong according to a couple of the websites I visited. This is a condensed version.


In the late 1500s to early 1600s, a group of people separated from the Church of England and became Separatists. They would meet in a manor in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire and were forced to relocate to Holland following persecution by the English authorities.


In 1618, they decide that they are going to head to America. They obtain a land permit and in 1620, the Mayflower and Speedwell start the journey across the sea. The Speedwell is forced to abandon the journey though due to the ship taking on water. Many of the passengers give up on the idea, but others join the Mayflower which becomes overcrowded with 102 passengers.


In December 1620, New Plymouth is founded by the people who would later become known as the Pilgrim Fathers. It is a bad winter  and inadequate shelter along with disease claims the lives of 45 of the new arrivals.mayflower-harbor

In 1621, the Pilgrims meet with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe and pledge peace with them. In exchange, the local tribe teaches them how to grow “The Sisters” – corn, beans, and squash.


November 1621, and only 53 of the original Pilgrims, of which only four were women, survive to celebrate the first Thanksgiving which was to give thanks for the new colonists and a good harvest.pres-med-rec

Jump forward 243 years to October 20th 1864, and Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation that sets aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and for all shops to close so everyone can celebrate it.


Three-quarters of a century later in 1939, and Franklin D Roosevelt changes the date to the fourth Thursday in November due to some months having five repetitions of the weekday. In 1941 Congress approves the change, and Thanksgiving Day is fully set.



Information comes from:

Thanksgiving: What’s the history of the holiday and why does the United States celebrate with a turkey dinner?site

Pilgrim Fatherssite

The Amercian Presidency Project: Abraham Lincolnsite

21 thoughts on “What Is Thanksgiving?

  1. This is only part of the story of American Thanksgiving, Alastair. It’s far bloodier and complex that it’s been made out to be. Yes, the British pilgrims did convene with the local Wampanoag people to help them survive the brutal winters in this new (to the British) land. Europeans (mainly the Spanish) had been traveling to the Americas for over a century by that point, so Native Americans were somewhat accustomed to them. But lost in the history books is the fact that the British settlers – once ensconced in their newly-built homes with the knowledge of how to survive – turned on the Wampanoag and other native peoples. They killed as many people as they could, including children, and thus commenced the longest-lasting and most far-reaching genocide in human history.

    Some contemporary European-Americans like to think their ancestors possessed superior intellect and technology that allowed them to overtake the native populations. Europeans possessed only two things that permitted their success: guns and horses. Horses were once indigenous to North America, but died out thousands of years ago. Europeans developed firearms, after the Chinese had developed gunpowder. The Chinese also invented what can now be called the first gun. Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel” goes into extraordinary detail about all of this.

    As far as the first official Thanksgiving, there’s still plenty of debate about that. While the feast of the British pilgrims is the accepted story, the reality is that – within the confines of what is now the continental United States – the first Thanksgiving feast was most likely held by Spanish explorers in what is now far West Texas in April of 1598 and was more congruent with an Easter celebration. The Spaniards established the first permanent European settlement in what is now the U.S. (San Augustine, Florida) and had reached the west coast of North America by the time the Mayflower arrived. Some of my own ancestors were in Texas in the 1580s and were part of the grand effort to build the Spanish empire in the Americas. (One of my ancestors is Spain’s Queen Isabella who financed Columbus’ voyage westward.) The Spaniards and the Portuguese brought the same types of diseases, as well as horses and guns, as their northern European counterparts did. They also engaged in some degree of deliberate genocide. But, by order of Isabella, they stopped the mass killings. They tried to baptize the indigenous peoples into the Roman Catholic faith and, later, began intermarrying with them. It’s why, even today, the bulk of Latin America’s population are mestizos (Caucasian and Indian). That’s what I am: a mix of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German. Mixing Spanish and Indian is guaranteed to produce a volatile character; then you add the German in there, and you’ve got a hellion!

    History is usually written by the victors, and in this case, that history has been riddled with myths and lies. Fortunately, the true story of the Americas is finally coming to light, and people of all races are starting to realize how intellectual and civilized the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere really were and still are.

    Below are some links that might clarify things.



  2. Thanks for the reminder that something that we in the US take so much for granted as “obvious” isn’t known in other countries. We are taught about the original Pilgrims and the Native Americans in elementary school, and often have school plays where we act out the coming together of the two groups, and how thankful the Pilgrims were to have survived. The politics surrounding the holiday have certainly changed since my childhood, but some things stay the same: like children tracing their hands on brown construction paper and cutting them out to decorate into turkeys, and post on the wall for everyone to admire. Hey, it’s a tradition, and no sillier than most! 🙂 Once you get out of school, though, most people don’t talk about the origins of the holiday: it really is what you initially thought, primarily about getting together with family and friends, eating a specific traditional Thanksgiving meal, and for a lot of people, watching football and/or the Macy’s parade on TV.

    • Thanks Joy. Not sure why I didn’t see this when it came up. I clicked on Unread messages.

      I think with a lot of traditions, they go out the window as soon as school has finished and we tend to forget where they came from. You ask kids now what they think Christmas is about and they will mostly say Father Christmas and presents. Ask them about Lent and they will say giving something up but don’t know why, and Easter is about chocolate eggs. There is far too much commercialism now. I am not a religious person, in fact I am agnostic, but if someone asks me about Christmas I will say it is about the birth of Christ, Easter about him being nailed, and Lent is when he wandered the desert for 40 days and 40 nights (or was taken back to his ship depending on which version you prefer)

      • I’m mixed on this issue. I think holidays are like language — over time, they change their meanings, at least for some subgroups in the culture, and after a while it stops making sense to say that it “really” means what it used to. For instance, I have Jewish friends who celebrate a secular version of Christmas, and it wouldn’t make sense to say, “A-ha, you’re really worshiping Jesus!” Christmas celebrations and traditions, like Thanksgiving, Easter, etc, have expanded to include a wide range of meanings that are separate from their original purpose. Not to mention how very recent an awful lot of our “traditional” wedding traditions are. Having said that, I’ll admit that I turn around and get Highly Annoyed at people who are using language the “wrong” way, so I really can’t take a strong stance either way without being a hypocrite, I suppose. 😉

    • It was interesting to read about. Thanks Vishal. Have a good day. Here in the UK we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We have a Harvest Festival earlier in the year but it is nowhere near as ingrained into our lives as Thanksgiving is for the US. DO you have anything similar in your country Vishal?

      • Hmm! I can’t recall now except for festivals like Diwali, Xmas and Eid! But, gotta check..hehe may be Christians do Good Friday and Thanks Giving. Thanks for informing me about it in the comment thread.

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