Origin of Thanksgiving, the American Holiday

Autumn Bouquet to Celebrate Thanksigving, Bev Scott

What is the origin of Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941. That’s when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Today, Thanksgiving as an American holiday tradition goes on strong. Most of us gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude. And many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims’ story. But, we can trace the roots of our Thanksgiving back to ancient celebrations of the bounty of harvest. I also discovered earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America, before the Plymouth celebration of 1621. 

Presidents declare days of thanks

Thanksgiving in the colonies had become a regular event by the middle of the 17th century. Then, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. And hence, the early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving. However, it still was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances. By then, the holiday had evolved from a religious and civil day of giving thanks to a day for a family feast. The Civil War compelled President Lincoln to declare a national holiday in 1863, in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors then proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

Thanksgiving for my grandparents?

My family history and writing of Sarah’s Secret, got me thinking. How does life of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compare to today? It turns out, I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving. However, my curiosity led me to explore the origin of Thanksgiving further. As noted, the holiday drew from the ancient traditions of harvest festivals. Then it added a layer of religious observance of the Puritans, giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Lacking family stories or traditions, I have imagined how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. It was not a national holiday and was observed differently by state. Thus, my grandparents might not have celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders. My grandfather then died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances. Certainly, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. 

Thanks for life’s blessings

Yet, my grandmother held a strong Christian faith. She would have valued a tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings. So I imagine that when the President declared a day of Thanksgiving, she probably observed it. She may have cooked something special, such as wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son. I know that she would have ensured that the family offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving. So I also imagine that she probably ignored any celebration of her birthday. Too much celebration was frivolous and extravagant.

Greetings! And Happy Thanksgiving, from Bev Scott

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my comfortable twenty-first century life. And for the opportunity to write about my grandmother, a strong courageous woman. I will honor her this Thanksgiving. This proud woman has inspired me with her determination. After all, she was left a widow to raise her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(Previous versions of this article have been published in “The Writing Life” in 2015 and 2016.)