When was Thanksgiving made an official holiday? It may surprise you

The Maryland National Guard's Partners in Care initiative donated 50 Thanksgiving meals to soldiers and airmen at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore, Md., Nov. 24, 2014.


By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving is among America’s most popular holidays, a time for food, family and football in celebrations that date back to the earliest days of the nation. In fact, the history of Thanksgiving is more complicated than the national myths about “Turkey Day.”

Here are some facts about the holiday that you may not have known:

Was the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and their Indian guests in 1621?

Although most Americans look to the Pilgrims as the founders of the Thanksgiving tradition, the jury is still out whether they were the first European settlers to hold a feast of thanksgiving on what became American soil. In 1565, more than 50 years before the Pilgrims landed at what’s now Massachusetts, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez invited local Native Americans to a feast giving thanks for the crew’s safe arrival in what’s now St. Augustine, Fla. On Dec. 4, 1619, British settlers along the James River in Virginia issued a proclamation declaring the date  “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

So why did the Pilgrims get the credit?

In a nutshell, better public relations. Massachusetts began celebrating Thanksgiving throughout the colony in 1630 though celebrations were irregular. That changed in 1680 when it became an official, regular holiday. Presidents George Washington and John Adams declared Thanksgivings during their administrations, but later chief executives didn’t continue the tradition. Some states, mostly in the northeast, celebrated statewide Thanksgivings but at different times of the year. In 1827 a New York writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” was so moved after reading an account of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving that she launched a nationwide campaign to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. That didn’t happen until 1863 during the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held every November.

What was on the menu for the Pilgrim Thanksgiving?

No detailed records survive about what was on the menu for the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, though one of the group, Edward Winslow, wrote that four men went on a “fowling” mission to prepare for the three-day feast. They probably returned with ducks, geese and swans. The Indians brought venison. Pumpkins were cultivated in New England, but the Pilgrims didn’t have flour and sugar for pies. The menu also likely featured fish and shellfish which were widely consumed. Turkey didn’t become a Thanksgiving fixture until the mid-1800s in New England.

Did the Pilgrims chose the November date?

Not really. No one knows for sure when the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving, but historians believe it was probably celebrated between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11 in 1621. Lincoln signed his proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863 and set the date as the final Thursday in November. In 1939, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date up a week, thinking it would encourage pre-Christmas sales during the Great Depression. That unleashed a storm of criticism, with pundits terming Nov. 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and Nov. 23 the “Democratic Thanksgiving.” Congress finally passed legislation declaring Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November. Although a few states continued to use the third Thursday for a few years. Texas didn’t change its law to comply with the national date until the mid-1950s.

Is Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday?

Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, tracing it back to 1578 when the explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks for surviving a perilous voyage in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific. French settlers in Quebec developed the tradition to celebrate successful harvests. The West African country of Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, celebrates Thanksgiving on the first Thursday in November.


Members of Team McConnell place donated food items in bags on Nov. 25, 2014, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The Airman and Family Readiness Center sponsored the Thanksgiving basket collection, with approximately 200 Thanksgiving baskets being put together by volunteers. First sergeants delivered the baskets of goods to Airmen in need of a helping hand. Team McConnell has been helping others with this annual donation for 20 years.