Subscribe
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.

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. (Tara Fadenrecht/Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

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.

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. (Tara Fadenrecht/Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Marines and Sailors with 2nd Marine Aircraft wing and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point play flag football during the 2nd annual Turkey Bowl flag football tournament at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Nov. 21, 2014. The tournament is conducted to raise camaraderie throughout the squadrons at Cherry Point and to celebrate the Thanksgiving season.  This year 150 Marines and Sailors participated in the tournament.

Marines and Sailors with 2nd Marine Aircraft wing and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point play flag football during the 2nd annual Turkey Bowl flag football tournament at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Nov. 21, 2014. The tournament is conducted to raise camaraderie throughout the squadrons at Cherry Point and to celebrate the Thanksgiving season. This year 150 Marines and Sailors participated in the tournament. (Unique B. Roberts /U.S. Marine Corps)

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.

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. (Michael Davis Jr./Maryland National Guard)

Gas Turbine System Technician 2nd Class Craig Arsenault, assigned to U.S. Naval War College and Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Korey Cunningham, assigned to Naval Station Newport, assemble holiday food baskets at Naval Station Newport, R.I. on Nov. 24, 2014. More than 40 baskets were put together for the Caring and Sharing program, which is intended to ensure sailors and families in need can enjoy traditional Thanksgiving and December holiday meals. Items for the baskets were donated by base personnel throughout November.

Gas Turbine System Technician 2nd Class Craig Arsenault, assigned to U.S. Naval War College and Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Korey Cunningham, assigned to Naval Station Newport, assemble holiday food baskets at Naval Station Newport, R.I. on Nov. 24, 2014. More than 40 baskets were put together for the Caring and Sharing program, which is intended to ensure sailors and families in need can enjoy traditional Thanksgiving and December holiday meals. Items for the baskets were donated by base personnel throughout November. (Dan Kuester/U.S. Navy)

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. David Putnum, supply sergeant, 412th Theater Engineer Command, unloads canned and dry goods Nov. 25, 2014, following the 412th TEC food drive in Vicksburg, Miss. The 412th TEC collected approximately 2,000 items and donated them to the United Way of West Central Mississippi.

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. David Putnum, supply sergeant, 412th Theater Engineer Command, unloads canned and dry goods Nov. 25, 2014, following the 412th TEC food drive in Vicksburg, Miss. The 412th TEC collected approximately 2,000 items and donated them to the United Way of West Central Mississippi. (Debralee Best/U.S. Army)

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.

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. (Michael Davis Jr./Maryland National Guard)

Jen Cline takes sweet potatoes from a can and distributes them into a tray at La Bella Vista Club, Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Nov. 26, 2014. The club expects to feed at least 220 people for a Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday.

Jen Cline takes sweet potatoes from a can and distributes them into a tray at La Bella Vista Club, Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Nov. 26, 2014. The club expects to feed at least 220 people for a Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)

Mary Ann Lauro, executive chef at La Bella Vista Club, Aviano Air Base, Italy, pours a caramel sauce she's crafted onto sweet potatoes Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, while preparing for a large Thanksgiving gathering at the club. She'd later add marshmallows and pecans.

Mary Ann Lauro, executive chef at La Bella Vista Club, Aviano Air Base, Italy, pours a caramel sauce she's crafted onto sweet potatoes Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, while preparing for a large Thanksgiving gathering at the club. She'd later add marshmallows and pecans. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)

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.

reid.robert@stripes.com

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now