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The History of Thanksgiving

Whether you gather around a plentiful cornucopia with family or eagerly watch the annual Thursday night football game, Thanksgiving is known to be a day of relaxation and contentment. But it wasn’t always as easy as going to the grocery store to buy a turkey and some stuffing. 

Thanksgiving began as a celebration of a fruitful harvest in 1621 after the pilgrims suffered a difficult first winter in the New World. It represented a time of peace between the English newcomers and Native Americans. A three-day affair, the pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoyed a large feast, though it probably did not feature the traditional turkey.

As years passed, Thanksgiving became an unofficial holiday in the Northeast, with many settlements designating various days to give thanks. Some presidents even gave congressional orders to take the day off; notably, George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving for the successful ratification of the Constitution.

In 1827, the star of the saga took the stage. Lovingly called the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” author Sarah Josepha Hale dedicated her life to making it a national holiday. For three decades, Hale wrote articles and petitioned to presidents for Thanksgiving to become official.

Her lucky day came in 1863 when President Abe Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving would take place on the last Thursday of every November. From that day forward, Turkey Day has been an annual American tradition.

Since 1924, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City has been synonymous with the holiday. The floats have become more extravagant year after year, and in 1954, the parade even included live elephants! 

Since the 1950s, the day after Thanksgiving (commonly known as Black Friday) has marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. In 2005, with the advent of online shopping, came Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Now an entire weekend of deals, millions flock to stores (in-person and online) to stock up on gifts for the holiday season.

Thanksgiving has not been without controversy, though. Many believe the holiday’s history is misleading, as it sugarcoats the bloody history of settler-Native American relations. Since 1970, hundreds to thousands of people have gathered on Thanksgiving day on Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock. Named the National Day of Mourning, this gathering aims to honor the past and current struggles of Native Americans and to dispel the cheery story of Thanksgiving.

Although Sarah Josepha Hale likely did not foresee a massive parade or the tragic deaths of 46 million turkeys per year, we should all thank her for the holiday she has given us: a weekend which we can spend with family and friends and celebrate what we are grateful for.


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