Tomorrow, Americans celebrate a national holiday set aside to give thanks for the blessings of the preceding year. But there is more to Thanksgiving than you may realize.
Here are nine things you should know about the holiday (and the attitude) of Thanksgiving:
1. The Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower and landed on Cape Cod were not the first Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving. The “Feast of the First Thanksgiving” was held in 1598 near El Paso, Texas—23 years before the Pilgrims’ festival. And at the Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia, settlers celebrated Thanksgiving on December 4, 1619—two years before the Pilgrims’ festival. As historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, author of The First Thanksgiving, wryly notes, what the early Plymouth settlers celebrated in 1621 could more accurately be called the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine.”
2. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth was a secular event that was not repeated. (A Calvinist Thanksgiving occurred in 1623 and did not involve sharing food with the Native Americans.) Altogether, 52 Pilgrims and approximately 50 Native Americans attended that celebration. According to participant Edward Winslow, the feast consisted of corn, barley, fowl (including wild turkeys), and venison.
3. George Washington was the first to issue a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. On October 3, 1789, in New York City, Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The Continental Congress supported similar thanksgiving proclamations through 1784. President Jefferson, however, opposed this type of proclamation, saying: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. . . . Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. . . . But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer.”
4. Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor and the author of the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” is the person most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Prior to 1863, the holiday was largely a celebration held in New England and unknown in the Southern states. Hale proposed it to be a national holiday in 1846 and advocated for 17 years before convincing Abraham Lincoln to support legislation establishing the national holiday in 1863.
5. For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1939, however, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and convinced him to move Thanksgiving one week earlier. Since it was believed most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving, retailers thought having an extra week of shopping would encourage Americans to spend more. Of the then-48 states, 32 joined Roosevelt in the “Democratic Thanksgiving,” while 16 stuck with the “Republican Thanksgiving” of the traditional date. After critics complained about “Franksgiving,” Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.
6. The term “Black Friday”—used for the shopping day after Thanksgiving—was coined by the Philadelphia Police Department’s traffic squad in the 1950s. According to Philadelphia newspaper reporter Joseph P. Barrett, “It was the day that Santa Claus took his chair in the department stores and every kid in the city wanted to see him. It was the first day of the Christmas shopping season.” Barrett first used the term in the city’s newspaper, the Evening Bulletin, in 1961 to refer to the traffic problems on that day. Local merchants complained to police commissioner Albert N. Brown about the negative association of the term, so Brown sent a press release describing the day as “Big Friday.” By then it was too late; the media had already started referring to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday.”
7. Since the 1870s, there has been a tradition of presidents receiving a turkey from constituents for Thanksgiving. In 1973, First Lady Patricia Nixon began the tradition of allowing the turkey to live and donating it to a farm. President George H. W. Bush made the turkey pardon official when he took office in 1989. However, the reprieve for the fowl is relatively short-lived. The National Turkey Federation, which raises birds for the presidential pardon ceremony, says a pardoned bird will be lucky to live two years after it has been pardoned by the president.
8. According to an informal survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving meal for ten people is $46.90—less than $5 per person. The AFBF survey shopping list includes turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee and milk—all in quantities sufficient not only to serve a family of 10, but also to have leftovers. (If the dinner also includes ham, potatoes, and frozen green beans, the overall cost increases to $60.11.) That same meal a century ago would have been much more expensive. When adjusted for inflation the same meal for 10 in 1911 would have cost $191.57—an increase of 121 percent. One reason is that turkeys are considerably cheaper today. A 16-pounder in 1911 prices would cost roughly $126 in today’s dollars, while the AFBF says the average turkey in 2020 costs only $19.39.
9. For Christians, Thanksgiving should be more than a day of celebration—it should be a way of life. As David Mathis observes, the apostle Paul encourages Christians to have lives characterized by thanksgiving.
Colossians 1:11–12: May you be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Colossians 2:6–7: “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Colossians 3:15–17: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Ephesians 5:20: “ . . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”