The Origins and Meaning of Thanksgiving Day Celebrations

While many of us know it as a day off of work and an excuse to craft a massive feast, Thanksgiving Day has roots stretching far back into history. As a national holiday, it is primarily celebrated in the United States and Canada, but the concept behind it is something that has been employed by many different cultures.

The holiday is celebrated in America every year on the fourth Thursday of November, and on the second Monday in October for Canadians. We associate a lot of things with modern day Thanksgiving like parades, football, pumpkin pie, and turkey, but why are all these things tied to this specific day? Read on as we explore the culture and history behind this iconic holiday.

What Day is Thanksgiving Each Year?

Beyond the United States and Canada, Thanksgiving is also recognized by Liberia, Granada, and the territories of Puerto Rico and Norfolk Island. The dates vary slightly from country to country. Here is a breakdown of when each location officially celebrates the holiday:

While Thanksgiving’s original purpose was to celebrate the harvest of the past year and give thanks for the blessing of food, the holiday has spread to multiple parts of American culture over the years. Even with plenty of roots in religious beliefs, this day has also managed to become a major secular tradition as well.

Quick Facts about The Thanksgiving Holiday

With a history reaching back to 1621, Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with fun facts and stunning statistics. Let’s take a look at some interesting tidbits about this iconic holiday brought to us by the History Channel:

Before we dive into the history of this iconic day, let’s examine two of the most well-known Thanksgiving traditions: football and parades.

Thanksgiving Traditions: Football and Parades

  1. Thanksgiving Football Traditions

Whether it’s an impromptu Turkey Bowl in your backyard, a high school rivalry, or a televised NFL game, American football has been intertwined with Thanksgiving since the beginning of the sport. In addition, the CFL (Canadian Football League) also plays football on the holiday, or the weekend following it.

The first American football game was in 1869 when Rutgers defeated Princeton in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Less than two weeks later, the first Thanksgiving football game was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to the big game, the Evening Telegraph newspaper published an announcement that went as follows:

"Foot Ball: A foot-ball match between twenty-two players of the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club will take place on Thanksgiving at 12 1/2 o'clock, on the grounds of the Germantown Club."

From 1876 through 1881 Princeton competed against Yale in New York City each year on Thanksgiving. In 1882 the Intercollegiate Football Association made it official that each year the Thanksgiving football game would be played between the two leading teams in that association to determine the collegiate champion.

This was the beginning of the Football tradition and with each passing year the tradition spread until every level of the sport adopted the tradition. The NFL was formed in 1920 and by that time this tradition was so infused with the sport that they immediately adopted it. Each year on Thanksgiving there are three games played:

The broadcasting for these games has gone through multiple channels over the years. DuMont was the first network to televise Thanksgiving football games in 1953. In 1956 CBS took the reins, and 1965 marked the first ever color broadcast of an NFL game. It was the Thanksgiving match between the Lions and the Baltimore Colts.

In 2012 it was decided that each of the three NFL broadcasting networks would carry one game apiece. The first two games are shown by CBS and Fox and are rotated between the two each year. The prime time game is carried by NBC.

  1. Thanksgiving Parade Traditions

Possibly the most nationally recognized Thanksgiving parade is the one held by Macy’s each year. This U.S-based department store chain started the tradition back in 1924 which makes a contender for the second-oldest Thanksgiving parade. Its inception is tied with the Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit.

The oldest parade is the 6abc Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Parade in Philadelphia which has the other two celebrations beat by four years. Macy’s iconic celebration is held each year on Thanksgiving in New York City starting at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The event lasts three-hours and is televised across the nation by NBC.

The iconic Macy’s parade started as an idea in the 1920s when many of the employees of the store were first-generation immigrants. They were so proud of their newly found American heritage that they wanted to find a grand way to celebrate America’s Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1924 the annual Thanksgiving Parade that was started by Louis Bamberger in Newark, New Jersey was transferred to New York City by Macy’s where it remains to this day. The first parade ran to the Macy’s Flagship store on 34th street. Employees marched wearing creative and colorful costumes.

Floats included musical performances and animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. In what would eventually become a tradition, the parade ended with Santa Claus appearing in Herald Square. The first parade featured him on the Macy’s balcony at the store entrance with an audience of over 250,000 people. It was such a successful event that Macy’s declared it would become an annual tradition.

The History of Thanksgiving in America

While the idea of setting aside time for reflecting on the providence and blessings one has been given stretches far and wide, the American tradition of Thanksgiving as we know it is commonly traced back to a holiday celebration at the Plymouth Plantation n 1621. The settlers held a massive banquet to celebrate the growing season.

During this time a Patuxet Native American by the name of Squanto showed the pilgrims how to catch eels and grow corn. He also acted as an interpreter between them and the Wampanoag tribe. The leader of the tribe, Massasoit gave food to the pilgrims during the first winter when they were low on supplies.

The feast in 1621 lasted for three days in Plymouth Massachusetts. These pilgrims were Separatists and not Puritans who established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628. These colonists celebrated Thanksgiving for the the first time in 1630 and almost every year after until 1680.

During the 18th century, colonies would celebrate days of thanks at various days throughout the year. While the tradition was becoming more popular, it was still unrecognized as a national holiday. As the American Revolutionary War came into full swing, the continental congress appointed multiple Thanksgiving days and left the responsibility of observing these dates to the individual leadership of each state.

From 1774 to 1789, the Continental-Confederation Congress declared “national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving.” This tradition was continued by George Washington and John Adams during their tenure as president.

Fast forward to the middle of the American Civil War, and we see that president Abraham Lincoln declares the last Thursday in November to be a national Thanksgiving holiday. This was in November of 1863 and he did this after being prompted by a number of editorials written by the aforementioned Sarah Josepha Hale.

On December 26th, 1941, President Roosevelt signed a bill declaring that Thanksgiving was an official holiday recognized on the fourth Thursday of November each year.

Canada’s Thanksgiving Origins

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada can be traced back to a voyage in 1568 by the explorer Martin Frobisher. On one of his voyages, he was seeking a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean. After surviving a perilous journey, Frobisher held Thanksgiving not because of the harvest, but because he managed to survive the journey.

His final voyage to the north was when he held a ceremony in Frobisher Bay in Baffin Island. A preacher by the name of Robert Wolfall led the ceremony and celebrated communion. Another source of Canada’s thanksgiving origin story comes from the French settlers that came to New France along with the explorer Samuel de Champlain in the 17th century.

This group of settlers had feasts near the end of the harvest season, giving thanks for the success they enjoyed. They also shared food with the indigenous peoples of the area as well. As more peoples immigrated to Canada, the tradition became more ingrained in the Canadian society.

Many of the United States traditions (especially the turkey) were brought to Canada as well during the American Revolution when United Empire Loyalists were fleeing into the northern country.

Common Thanksgiving Recipes

Thanksgiving Day is known for featuring a feast reminiscent of the one enjoyed by the pilgrims of Plymouth Massachusetts. The modern Thanksgiving dinner usually features turkey as the centerpiece of the meal. In the United States, there are several staple meals and recipes that can be found in almost every traditional meal this time of year.

The turkey itself is sometimes baked, roasted, or fried. This specific type of meat has always been a strong presence, lending the use of “Turkey Day” as an alternate name for the holiday. In addition to the iconic meat selection, there are several other traditional dishes:

These food items (the casserole didn’t appear until 1955) were all native to the Americas, or they had been provided as new food source to the pilgrims when they set foot on the land. In his book Mayflower Nathaniel Philbrick claims that the English settlers may have already known about turkey, despite the bird being native to America.

Spanish explorers brought back turkeys from Central America in the 17th century which resulted in the bird being widely popular across Europe soon after. While the pilgrims didn’t observe Christmas, turkey became a common substitute for the traditional goose served at Christmas dinners in England.

Final Thoughts

Thanksgiving means a lot of things to different people. No matter where you live though, it is always a time for friends and family to gather under one roof. As one of the busiest travel periods each year, it is a widely recognized holiday. Schools and colleges often provide several days off for students each year around the holiday.

As of 2007, 78% of all businesses and government employers gave their workers Thanksgiving off as a paid holiday. This holiday is a time to give and it’s a time to be thankful for all the things we have received in the last year. It may have begun as a day of remembrance for the harvest, but these days we have a lot to be thankful for and considerate of.

Don’t forget that turkey also contains tryptophan, which combined with carbohydrates like potatoes makes you sleepy afterward, so don’t be afraid to schedule a nap.