The Tradition of the Thanksgiving Holiday

The tradition — introduced by European Americans of Thanksgiving as a time to focus on God and His blessings — dates back over four centuries. But it is primarily from the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration of 1621 that we derive the tradition of Thanksgiving Day.

The pilgrims set sail for America on Sept. 6, 1620, and, for two months, braved the harsh elements of a storm-tossed sea. Upon disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they held a prayer service and then hastily began building shelters. However, unprepared for such a harsh New England winter, nearly half of them died before spring. Emerging from that grueling winter, the pilgrims were surprised when an Indian named Samoset approached them and greeted them in their own language, explaining to them he had learned English from fishermen and traders.

A week later, Samoset returned with a friend named Squanto, the last of his tribal nation, who lived with the pilgrims and accepted their Christian faith. Squanto taught the pilgrims much about how to live in the New World. That summer, the pilgrims reaped a bountiful harvest and declared a three-day feast in December 1621 to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends — America’s first Thanksgiving festival. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the 50 pilgrims for three days of feasting.

The pilgrim practice of designating a time of Thanksgiving spread into neighboring colonies and became an annual tradition. America’s first national Thanksgiving occurred in 1789. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of each November and, in 1941, Congress permanently established that day as the national Thanksgiving holiday.

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