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The History of the First Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving Day is considered as a national holiday in the United States, and the first Thanksgiving was held by the pilgrims of Plymouth colony in the 17th century to celebrate the successful fall harvest. It was an English tradition at the time, and the pilgrims had much to celebrate. The 53 pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving were the only colonists to survive the long journey and the New World’s first winter, as for the rest, they died due to disease and starvation. With the help of the local Wampanoag tribe, they gave the pilgrims enough food supply that will last until the next winter, and eventually made it through the first winter and survived.

When was it first celebrated?

Although the modern-day Thanksgiving feast takes place on the fourth Thursday of November, the feast most likely happened sometime between September and November of 1621. There was actually no exact date recorded, so one can only assume it happened sometime after the fall harvest. The celebration took place for three days and included recreational activities.

What did they eat?

Today’s Thanksgiving serves a lot of dishes — roasted turkey, pies, salads, you name it, it’s there. However, on the first celebration of Thanksgiving, modern Thanksgiving meals weren’t present. In fact, the colonists didn’t have potatoes, nor did they have butter or flour necessary for making pies. They didn’t even build an oven yet! Cranberries were served instead of a sweet sauce but only for color or tartness. Some believed that they served fowl and deer, but guesses can be made based on the types of food they often wrote about, such as mussels, lobsters, grapes, plums, corn, and herbs. There is no actual proof that the colonists ate turkey at the feast. Turkey wasn’t even associated with the Thanksgiving holiday until an editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, came across Edward Winslow’s writings about the feast in the 1840s. A lot of people believed that Thanksgiving became a reoccurring celebration for the pilgrims. Whether this is true or not is unclear, since there are no other accounts of the pilgrims, holding any more harvest celebrations after 1621. Although it is possible that the feasts happened, it wasn’t recorded.

Why is it called Thanksgiving and when did it become a national holiday?

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The feast celebrated by the pilgrims wasn’t really called “Thanksgiving”, in fact, it wasn’t really called anything except it was a celebration for a bountiful harvest. Although, the pilgrims did hold “Thanksgiving”, which was simply a religious day of prayer and fasting that had nothing to do with the fall harvest. As the years passed, the names of the two events became intertwined, and people began holding “Thanksgiving feasts” during autumn months.

The celebration became a national “holiday” when the Continental Congress declared it to be on December 18, 1777. Then come 1789, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. However, it didn’t become a national holiday until Hale began writing letters to each sitting president starting in 1846. She wrote letters to five presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln, asking them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Luckily, Abraham Lincoln was the only president who listened and supported it — making Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War at the time, and Lincoln hoped the new holiday would help unify the divided country.