Page One Editorials

The History of Thanksgiving in America


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, is a public holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States. It originated as a harvest festival. Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, after Congress requested a proclamation by George Washington. It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Together with Christ-mas and the New Year, Thanksgiving is a part of the broader fall/ winter holiday season in the U.S.


The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in October 1621. This feast lasted three days, and—as account-ed by attendee Edward Winslow—it was attended by ninety Native Americans and fifty-three Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.


Early thanksgiving observances

Setting aside time to give thanks for ones blessings, along with holding feasts to celebrate a harvest, are both practices that long predate the European settlement of North America. The first docu-mented thanksgiving services in territory currently belonging to the United States were conducted by Spaniards and the French in the 16th century. Wisdom practices such as expressing gratitude, shar-ing, and giving away, are integral to many indigenous cultures and communities.


Thanksgiving services were routine in what became the Common-wealth of Virginia as early as 1607, with the first permanent settle-ment of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610. In 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia. The groups London Company charter specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Three years later, after the Indian massacre of 1622, the Berkeley Hundred site and other outlying loca-tions were abandoned and colonists moved their celebration to Jamestown and other more secure spots.


Harvest festival observed by the Pilgrims at Plymouth

Americans also trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season. Autumn or early winter feasts con-tinued sporadically in later years, first as an impromptu religious observance and later as a civil tradition.


Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who resided with the Wampa-noag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.


The Pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth for three days after their first harvest in 1621. The exact time is unknown, but James Baker, the Plimoth Plantation vice president of research, stated in 1996, “The event occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (Sept. 29), the traditional time.” Seventeenth-century accounts do not identify this as a Thanks-giving observance, rather it followed the harvest. It included 50 persons who were on the Mayflower (all who remained of the 100 who had landed) and 90 Native Americans. The feast was cooked by the four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White), along with young daughters and male and female servants.


Two colonists gave personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth. The Pilgrims, most of whom were Separatists (English Dissenters), are not to be confused with Puritans, who established their own Mas-sachusetts Bay Colony on the Shawmut Peninsula (current day Boston) in 1630. Both groups were strict Calvinists, but differed in their views regarding the Church of England. Puritans wished to remain in the Anglican Church and reform it, while the Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the church.


The Pilgrims held a true Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 following a fast, and a refreshing 14-day rain which resulted in a larger harvest. William DeLoss Love calculates that this thanksgiving was made on Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, but before the fall harvest. In Loves opinion this 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority (Governor Bradford), not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.


These firsthand accounts do not appear to have contributed to the early development of the holiday. Bradfords “Of Plymouth Plantation” was not published until the 1850s. While the booklet “Mourts Rela-tion” was summarized by other publications without the now-familiar thanksgiving story. By the eighteenth century the original booklet appeared to be lost or forgotten. A copy was rediscovered in Phila-delphia in 1820, with the first full reprinting in 1841. In a footnote the editor, Alexander Young, was the first person to identify the 1621 feast as the first Thanksgiving.


According to historian James Baker, debates over where any “first Thanksgiving” took place on modern American territory are a “tempest in a beanpot.” Jeremy Bang claims, “Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land.” Baker claims, “the American holidays true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to Gods providence.”


President John F. Kennedy issued Proclamation 3560 on November 5, 1963 stating, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God.”


Lincoln and the Civil War

In the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the 26th, the final Thursday of November 1863. The document, written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, reads as follows:


“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peace-ful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settle-ments, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Popula-tion has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.


“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath never-theless remembered mercy.


“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.


“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.


“Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”


Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.


Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States. The holiday superseded Evacuation Day, a de facto national holiday that had been held on November 25 each year prior to the Civil War and commemorated the British withdrawal from the United States after the American Revolution.


Post-Civil War era

During the second half of the 19th century, Thanksgiving traditions in America varied from region to region. A traditional New England Thanksgiving, for example, consisted of a raffle held on Thanksgiving Eve (in which the prizes were mainly geese or turkeys), a shooting match on Thanksgiving morning (in which turkeys and chickens were used as targets), church services—and then the traditional feast, which consisted of some familiar Thanksgiving staples such as turkey and pumpkin pie, and some not-so-familiar dishes such as pigeon pie. The earliest high school football rivalries took root in the late 19th century in Massachusetts, stemming from games played on Thanks-giving; professional football took root as a Thanksgiving staple during the sports genesis in the 1890s, and the tradition of Thanksgiving football both at the high school and professional level continues to this day. In New York City, people would dress up in fanciful masks and costumes and roam the streets in merry-making mobs. By the beginning of the 20th century, these mobs had morphed into Raga-muffin parades consisting mostly of children dressed as “ragamuf-fins” in costumes of old and mismatched adult clothes and with deliberately smudged faces, but by the late 1950s the tradition had diminished enough to only exist in its original form in a few com-munities around New York, with many of its traditions subsumed into the Halloween custom of trick-or-treating.


1939 to 1941

Abraham Lincoln’s successors as president followed his example of annually declaring the final Thursday in November to be Thanks-giving. But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with this tradition. November had five Thursdays that year (instead of the more-common four), Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. Although many popular histories state otherwise, he made clear that his plan was to establish the holiday on the next-to-last Thursday in the month instead of the last one. With the country still in the midst of The Great Depression, Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Increasing profits and spending during this period, Roosevelt hoped, would help bring the country out of the Depression. At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate. Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macys), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving to a week earlier to expand the shopping season, and within two years the change passed through Congress into law.


Republicans decried the change, calling it an affront to the memory of Lincoln. People began referring to November 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and November 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving.” Regardless of the politics, many localities had made a tradition of celebrating on the last Thursday, and many foot-ball teams had a tradition of playing their final games of the season on Thanksgiving; with their schedules set well in advance, they could not change. Since a presidential declaration of Thanksgiving Day was not legally binding, Roosevelts change was widely disregarded. Twenty-three states went along with Roosevelts recommendation, 22 did not, and some, like Texas, could not decide and took both days as government holidays.


In 1940 and 1941, years in which November had four Thursdays, Roosevelt declared the third one as Thanksgiving. As in 1939, some states went along with the change while others retained the tradi-tional last-Thursday date.


1942 to present

On October 6, 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was usually the last Thursday and sometimes (two years out of seven, on average) the next to last. The amendment also passed the House, and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.


For several years some states continued to observe the last-Thursday date in years with five November Thursdays (the next such year being 1944), with Texas doing so as late as 1956.


Traditional celebrations

The poor are often provided with food at Thanksgiving time. Most communities have annual food drives that collect non-perishable packaged and canned foods, and corporations sponsor charitable distributions of staple foods and Thanksgiving dinners. The Salvation Army enlists volunteers to serve Thanksgiving dinners to hundreds of people in different locales. Additionally, pegged to be five days after Thanksgiving is Giving Tuesday, a celebration of charitable giving.


Foods of the season

U.S. tradition compares the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Plantation. It is continued in modern times with the Thanksgiving dinner, tradi-tionally featuring turkey, playing a central role in the celebration of Thanksgiving.


In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Turkey, usually roasted and stuffed (but some-times deep-fried instead), is typically the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table, so much so that Thanksgiving is colloquially known as “Turkey Day.” In fact, 45 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone in 2015. With 85 percent of Americans partaking in the meal, that’s an estimated 276 million Americans dining on the festive poultry, spending an expected $1.05 billion on turkeys for Thanksgiving in 2016.


Mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables, squash, Brussels sprouts and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Green bean casserole was introduced in 1955 and remains a favorite. All of these are actually native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans when they arrived. Turkey may be an exception. In his book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that the Pilgrims might already have been familiar with turkey in England, even though the bird is native to the Americas. The Span-iards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a “fixture at English Christmases.” The Pilgrims did not observe Christmas.


As a result of the size of Thanksgiving dinner, Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.


Giving thanks

Thanksgiving was founded as a religious observance for all the members of the community to give thanks to God for a common purpose. Historic reasons for community thanksgivings are: the 1541 thanksgiving mass after the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado safely crossing the high plains of Texas and finding game, and the 1777 thanksgiving after the victory in the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga. In his 1789 National Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Washington gave many noble reasons for a national Thanksgiving, including “for the civil and religious liberty,” for “useful knowledge”, and for Gods “kind care” and “His Providence.” After President Washington delivered this message, the “Episcopal Church, of which President Washington was a member, announced that the first Thursday in November would become its regular day for giving thanks.”


The tradition of giving thanks to God is continued today in many forms, most notably the attendance of religious services, as well as the saying of a mealtime prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. Many houses of worship offer worship services and events on Thanksgiving themes the weekend before, the day of, or the weekend after Thanks-giving. At home, it is a holiday tradition in many families to begin the Thanksgiving dinner by saying grace (a prayer before or after a meal). The custom is portrayed in the photograph “Family Holding Hands and Praying Before a Thanksgiving Meal.” Before praying, it is a common practice at the dining table for “each person [to] tell one specific reason they’re thankful to God that year.” While grace is said, many families hold hands until the prayer concludes, often indicated with an “Amen.”


Joy Fisher, a Baptist Christian writer, states that “this holiday takes on a spiritual emphasis and includes recognition of the source of the blessings they enjoy year round — a loving God.” In the same vein, Hesham A. Hassaballa, an American Muslim scholar and physician, has written that Thanksgiving “is wholly consistent with Islamic principles” and that “few things are more Islamic than thanking God for His blessings.” Similarly many Sikh Americans also celebrate the holiday by “giving thanks to Almighty.”


Parades

Since 1924, in New York City, the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually every Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally by NBC. The parade features parade floats with specific themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon char-acters, TV personalities, and high school marching bands. The float that traditionally ends the Macys Parade is the Santa Claus float, the arrival of which is an unofficial sign of the beginning of the Christmas season. It is billed as the world’s largest parade.


The oldest Thanksgiving Day parade is the Philadelphia’s Thanks-giving Day Parade, which launched in 1920 and takes place in Phila-delphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s parade was long associated with Gimbels, a prominent Macys rival, until that store closed in 1986. Its current sponsors are WPVI-TV, the channel 6 ABC affiliate in Phila-delphia; and Dunkin Donuts donut chain.


Founded in 1924, the same year as the Macy’s parade, Americas Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit is one of the largest parades in the country. The parade runs from Midtown to Downtown Detroit and precedes the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving football game. The parade includes large balloons, marching bands, and various celebrity guests much like the Macys parade and is nationally televised on various affiliate stations. The Mayor of Detroit closes the parade by giving Santa Claus a key to the city.


There are Thanksgiving parades in many other cities, including:



Most of these parades are televised on a local station, and some have small, usually regional, syndication networks; most also carry the parades via Internet television on the TV stations websites.


Several other parades have a loose association with Thanksgiving, thanks to CBSs now-discontinued All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage. Parades that were covered during this era were the Aloha Floral Parade held in Honolulu, Hawaii every September, the Toronto Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the Opryland Aqua Parade (held from 1996 to 2001 by the Gaylord Opry-land Resort & Convention Center in Nashville); the Opryland parade was discontinued and replaced by a taped parade in Miami Beach, Florida in 2002. A Disneyland parade was also featured on CBS until Disney purchased rival ABC.


For many years the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now Hollywood Christ-mas Parade) in Los Angeles was held on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. In 1978 this was switched to the Sunday follow-ing the holiday.


Sports

American football

American football is an important part of many Thanksgiving cele-brations in the United States, a tradition that dates to the earliest era of the sport in the late 19th century. Professional football games are often held on Thanksgiving Day; until recently, these were the only games played during the week apart from Sunday or Monday night. The National Football League has played games on Thanksgiving every year since its creation. The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day from 1934 to 1938 and again every year since 1945. In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys, who had been founded six years earlier, adopted the practice of hosting Thanksgiving games. The league added a third game in prime time in 2006, which aired on the NFL Network, then moved to NBC in 2012. The third game has no set site or team, providing an opportunity for all teams in the league to host a Thanksgiving game in the future.


For college football teams that participate in the highest level (all teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, as well as three teams in the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference of the Champion-ship Subdivision), the regular season ends on Thanksgiving weekend, and a team’s final game is often against a regional or historic rival, such as the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn, the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State, the Apple Cup between Washing-ton and Washington State, and Michigan and Ohio State playing in their rivalry game. Most of these college games are played on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving, but usually one or two college games are played on Thanksgiving itself. The lower divisions of the game, including all of Divisions II and III, the NAIA, club football and the rest of the Championship Subdivision (except the Ivy League, whose season ends before Thanksgiving) are in the midst of playoff tournaments over Thanksgiving weekend.


Some high school football games (which include some state champ-ionship games), and informal “Turkey Bowl” contests played by amateur groups and organizations, are frequently held on Thanks-giving weekend. Games of football preceding or following the meal in the backyard or a nearby field are also common during many family gatherings. Amateur games typically follow less organized backyard-rules, two-hand touch or flag football styles.


Other sports

College basketball holds several elimination tournaments on over Thanksgiving weekend, before the conference season. These include the Anaheim-based Wooden Legacy, the Orlando-based AdvoCare Invitational, and the Bahamas-based Battle 4 Atlantis, all of which are televised on ESPN2 and ESPNU in marathon format. The NCAA owned-and-operated NIT Season Tip-Off has also since moved to Thanksgiving week. This is a relatively new phenomenon, dating only to 2006. The National Basketball Association also briefly played on Thanksgiving, albeit in the evening, with a doubleheader airing Thanksgiving night on TNT, a practice that ran from 2009 to 2011; the Atlanta Hawks hosted the early game each year, while the Los Angeles Clippers hosted the late game in both 2010 and 2011 (both of the 2011 NBA Thanksgiving games were canceled due to a labor dispute). The NBA did not schedule any Thanksgiving games in 2012 or 2013, mainly due to the move of the NFLs primetime Thanksgiving game to NBC.



Though golf and auto racing are in their off-seasons on Thanksgiving, there are events in those sports that take place on Thanksgiving weekend. The Turkey Night Grand Prix is an annual automobile race that takes place at various venues in southern California on Thanks-giving night; due in part to the fact that this is after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Verizon Indy Car Series have finish-ed their seasons, it allows some of the top racers in the United States to participate. In golf, Thanksgiving weekend was the traditional time of the Skins Game from 1983 to 2008; the event was canceled in 2009 due to a lack of sponsorship and a difficulty in drawing star talent. A return was, at the time of the cancellation, planned for the next year, but no skins game has been included on the PGA Tour schedule since that time.


The world championship pumpkin chunking contest was held in early November in Delaware and televised each Thanksgiving on Science Channel.


In ice hockey, the National Hockey League announced, as part of its decade-long extension with NBC, that they would begin airing a game on the Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving beginning the 2011–12 NHL season; the game has since been branded as the Thanksgiving Showdown. (The Boston Bruins have played matinees on Black Friday since at least 1990, but 2011 is the first time the game has been nationally televised.) The NHL has played games on Thanksgiving, usually scheduling games involving Canadian teams (but not always, as was the case in 2016, when the league scheduled a nationally televised game Thanksgiving night between two American teams on the West Coast). In Canada, Thanksgiving is in October, although no games were scheduled in 2011 and only one was scheduled in 2012 (both the Thanksgiving Showdown and the lone Canadian game on U.S. Thanksgiving were canceled as a result of a labor dispute in 2012); as a result of the effective day off, almost all of the leagues teams play the day after Thanksgiving.


Professional wrestling promotions have typically held premier pay-per-view events on or around the time of Thanksgiving. This trend began in 1983 when Jim Crockett Promotions, the largest promoter in the National Wrestling Alliance, introduced Starrcade. Starrcade, later incorporated into World Championship Wrestling, moved off Thanksgiving in 1988; the year prior, the rival World Wrestling Federation had introduced Survivor Series, an event that continues to be hosted in November to the present day. TNA Wrestling held pay-per-view events, including TNA Genesis and TNA Turning Point, in November from 2005 to 2013.


The Turkey Trot is a road running event held in numerous cities on Thanksgiving morning. Depending on the organizations involved, these can range from one-mile (1.6 km) fun runs to full marathons (although no races currently use the latter; the Atlanta Marathon stopped running on Thanksgiving beginning in 2010). Most Turkey Trots range from between three and ten miles (5–16 km).


Television

For a more comprehensive list, see List of Thanksgiving television specials.


While not as prolific as Christmas specials, which usually begin right after Thanksgiving, there are many special television programs trans-mitted on or around Thanksgiving, such as A Charlie Brown Thanks-giving, in addition to the live parades and football games mentioned above. In some cases, television broadcasters begin programming Christmas films and specials to run on Thanksgiving Day, taking the day as a signal for the beginning of the Christmas season.


Radio

“Alice’s Restaurant”, an 18-minute monologue by Arlo Guthrie that is partially based on an incident that happened on Thanksgiving in 1965, was first released in 1967. It has since become a tradition on numerous classic rock and classic hits radio stations to play the full, uninterrupted recording to much fanfare each Thanksgiving Day, a tradition that appears to have originated with counterculture radio host Bob Fass, who introduced the song to the public on his radio show. Another song that traditionally gets played on numerous radio stations (of many different formats) is “The Thanksgiving Song”, a 1992 song by Adam Sandler.


Prominent radio host Rush Limbaugh has an annual tradition known as The Real Story of Thanksgiving, in which he gives his interpreta-tion of the Thanksgiving story on his program the day before Thanks-giving. The public radio series Science Friday broadcasts coverage of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies on the day after Thanksgiving.


Football play-by-play and, in at least one case, parade coverage, is also available on the radio.


Turkey pardoning

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the Presi-dent of the United States with one live turkey and two dressed turkeys, in a ceremony known as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. John F. Kennedy was the first president reported to spare the turkey given to him (he announced he didn’t plan to eat the bird), and Ronald Reagan was the first to grant the turkey a presi-dential pardon, which he jokingly presented to his 1987 turkey (a turkey that would indeed be spared and sent to a petting zoo).


There are legends that state that the “pardoning” tradition dates to the Harry Truman administration or even to an anecdote of Abraham Lincoln pardoning his sons pet turkey (a Christmas turkey); both stories have been quoted in more recent presidential speeches, but neither has any evidence in the Presidential record. In more recent years, two turkeys have been pardoned, in case the original turkey becomes unavailable for presidential pardoning.


George H. W. Bush, who served as vice president under Reagan, made the turkey pardon a permanent annual tradition upon assuming the presidency in 1989, a tradition that has been carried on by every president each year since. The pardoned turkeys have typically ended up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. From 1989 to 2004 they were sent to a children’s farm called “Frying Pan Farm Park” in Herndon, Virginia. From 2009 to 2013 they were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2014 they were sent to an estate in Leesburg, Virginia once owned by former state governor and turkey farmer Westmoreland Davis. However, from 2005 to 2009 they were sent to either Walt Disney World or Disneyland. The turkeys rarely live to see the next Thanksgiving due to being bred for large size.


Vacation and travel

On Thanksgiving Day, families and friends usually gather for a large meal or dinner. Consequently, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Thanksgiving is a four-day or five-day weekend vacation for schools and colleges. Most business and government workers (78% in 2007) are given Thanks-giving and the day after as paid holidays. Thanksgiving Eve, the night before Thanksgiving, is one of the busiest nights of the year for bars and clubs (where it is often identified by the derogatory name Black-out Wednesday), as many college students and others return to their hometowns to reunite with friends and family.


Criticism and controversy

Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is considered by some to be a “national day of mourning”, as a celebration of the cultural genocide and conquest of Native Americans by colonists. Thanksgiving has long carried a distinct resonance for Native Americans, who see the holiday as an embellished story of “Pilgrims and Natives looking past their differences” to break bread. Professor Dan Brook of the Univer-sity of California, Berkeley condemns the “cultural and political amnesia” of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving: “We do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something.” Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin is somewhat harsher: “One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feast-ing with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflec-tive collective fasting.” Some of the controversy regarding Thanks-giving have been used to justify the Christmas creep (the act of putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving). Those who sympathize with this view acknowledge it as a small minority view; author and humanist John G. Rodwan, who does not celebrate Thanksgiving, noted “If you put forth the interpretation (...) that touches on the dishonorable treatment of the native population that lived in what became the United States, then you are likely to be dismissed as some sort of crank.”


Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England, a protest group led by Frank “Wamsutta” James has accused the United States and European settlers of fabricating the Thanksgiving story and of whitewashing a genocide and injustice against Native Americans, and it has led a National Day of Mourning protest on Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the name of social equality and in honor of political prisoners.


On November 27, 1969, as another notable example of anti-Thanks-giving sentiment, hundreds of supporters traveled to Alcatraz on Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the Occupation of Alcatraz (which had started a week earlier and lasted until 1971) by Native Americans of All Tribes. The American Indian Movement and the Native American Church (peyote religion) both also hold a negative view of Thanks-giving; the AIM has used it as a platform for protest, most notably when they took over a Mayflower float in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Some Native Americans hold “Unthanksgiving Day” celebrations in which they mourn the deaths of their ancestors, fast, dance, and pray. This tradition has been taking place since 1975.


The perception of Thanksgiving among Native Americans is not, however, universally negative. Tim Giago, founder of the Native American Journalists Organization, seeks to reconcile Thanksgiving with Native American traditions. He compares Thanksgiving to “wopila”, a thanks-giving celebration practiced by Native Americans of the Great Plains. He wrote in The Huffington Post: “The idea of a day of Thanksgiving has been a part of the Native American land-scape for centuries. The fact that it is also a national holiday for all Americans blends in perfectly with Native American traditions.” He also shares personal anecdotes of Native American families coming together to celebrate Thanksgiving. Members of the Oneida Indian Nation marched in the 2010 Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade with a float called “The True Spirit of Thanksgiving” and have done so every year since.


In the early part of the twentieth century, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4A) opposed the celebration of Thanksgiving Day, offering an alternative observance called Blame-giving Day, which was in their eyes, “a protest against Divine negli-gence, to be observed each year on Thanksgiving Day, on the assump-tion, for the day only, that God exists.” Citing their view of the separation of church and state, some atheists in recent times have particularly criticized the annual recitation of Thanksgiving proc-lamations by the President of the United States, because these proclamations often revolve around the theme of giving thanks to God.


The move by retailers to begin holiday sales during Thanksgiving Day (as opposed to the traditional day after) has been criticized as forcing (under threat of being fired) low-end retail workers, who compose an increasing share of the nation’s workforce, to work odd hours and to handle atypical, unruly crowds on a day reserved for rest. In response to this controversy, Macys and Best Buy (both of which planned to open on Thanksgiving, even earlier than they had the year before) stated in 2014 that most of their Thanksgiving Day shifts were filled voluntarily by employees who would rather have the day after Thanks-giving off instead of Thanksgiving itself. Blue laws in several North-eastern states prevent retailers in those states from opening on Thanksgiving. Such retailers typically open at midnight on the day after Thanksgiving to circumvent the laws as much as legally possible.


Journalist Edward R. Murrow and producer David Lowe deliberately chose Thanksgiving weekend 1960 to release Murrow’s final story for CBS News. Entitled “Harvest of Shame,” the hour-long documentary was designed “to shock Americans into action” in regard to the treat-ment of impoverished migrant workers in the country, hoping to contrast Thanksgiving dinner and its excesses with the poverty of those who picked the vegetables. Murrow acknowledged the docu-mentary portrayed the United States from a hostile perspective and, when he left CBS to join the United States Information Agency in 1961, unsuccessfully tried to stop the special from being aired in the United Kingdom.


Date

Since being fixed on the fourth Thursday in November by law in 1941, the holiday in the United States can occur on any date from Novem-ber 22 to 28. When it falls on November 22 or 23, it is not the last Thursday, but the penultimate Thursday in November. Regardless, it is the Thursday preceding the last Saturday of November.


Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, all United States govern-ment offices are closed and all employees are paid for that day. It is also a holiday for the New York Stock Exchange and most other financial markets and financial services companies.


Days after Thanksgiving

The day after Thanksgiving is a holiday for some companies and most schools. In the last two decades of the 20th century, it became known as Black Friday, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and a day for chaotic, early-morning sales at major retailers that were closed on Thanksgiving. A contrasting movement known as Buy Nothing Day originated in Canada in 1992. The day after Thanks-giving is also Native American Heritage Day, a day to pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States.


Small Business Saturday, a movement promoting shopping at smaller local establishments, takes place on the last Saturday in November, two days after Thanksgiving. Cyber Monday is a nickname given to the Monday following Thanksgiving; the day evolved in the early days of the Internet, when consumers returning to work took advantage of their employer’s broadband Internet connections to do online shopping and retailers began offering sales to meet the demand. Giving Tuesday takes place on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

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Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.


Learn more about this historic painting. Learn more about Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, artist of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth."

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

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John F. Kennedy unofficially spares a turkey on November 19, 1963. The practice of "pardoning" turkeys in this manner became a permanent tradition in 1989.