A Brief History of National Turkey Day

Ok, maybe it’s not all about the turkey and shopping. Maybe you had fajitas, like I did. However you celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m sure, like me, you’re curious about how this holiday of feasting came to be. If that’s the case, I hope you’ll follow along as we explore the history of Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

Many of us spent time with family and friends the past several days commemorating Thanksgiving Day, gobbling down gobs of food and feasting on seemingly endless supplies of smorgasbords of turkey and dressing, sweet corn, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pies of every kind. After stuffing our faces and filling our bellies, we plopped down to watch the big game on TV.

How did our modern day celebration of thanksgiving come about? That’s a good question that I hope to devote some time to exploring in my series on Thanksgiving Day.

First, let’s look at the defintion of the word “thanksgiving” itself.

What does “thanksgiving” mean?

Dictionary.com provides the following definitions for the noun thanksgiving:

  1. The act of giving thanks; grateful acknowledgment of benefits or favors, especially to God.
  2. An expression of thanks, especially to God.
  3. A public celebration in acknowledgment of divine favor or kindness.
  4. A day set apart for giving thanks to God.
  5. Thanksgiving Day

How did Thanksgiving begin?

As seems to be to the case with so many things in our day, some confusion exists about the history of Thanksgiving Day and how we came to celebrate it here in America. Hopefully, through this series, I will help clarify our understanding about how this great holiday came to be, as well as defining more clearly it’s purpose throughout our nation’s history.

So, obviously, Thanksgiving Day is a time set aside for giving thanks, acknowledging favor and kindness that we have experienced over the course of the year, particularly those bestowed upon us by divine means. In the midst of our hectic lives and ruts of routine, Thanksgiving Day gives us time to pause and reflect on the goodness and kindness that we experience in our lives. Sometimes, in the drudgery of the day, we lose sight of what is right in our lives because our human nature tends to get caught up with what we’re missing or what we are lacking. Being thankful ushers in feelings of positivity that replace the negative energy clouding our spirit and darkening our soul. It allows us to look back at the obstacles we faced and celebrate overcoming them, usually not on our own but through the aid of others and of course, by God’s supernatural intervention.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians gathering together to celebrate an autumn harvest feast in 1621. After the harsh Winter of 1620 killed virtually half of their people, the early colonists formed a relationship with their neighbors, the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag taught the colonists about hunting, fishing and planting in the New World. With the Indians help, by the Fall of 1621, the colonists had harvested ample provisions to sustain them through the coming Winter. In order to celebrate their abundant blessings, the colonists and Indians gathered together for a three day feast. While the menu probably didn’t include turkey, it is believed to have featured ample amounts of deer, roasted goose, corn, codfish and lobster. This event marked what we today traditionally know to be the First Thanksgiving, though it would not officially become a national holiday for another two hundred years.

There is little evidence to indicate that the Fall feast immediately became a recurring tradition practiced annually from that First Thanksgiving onward. However, we do know that the Plymouth colonists would go on to celebrate Thanksgving several more times in their history as a means of celebrating boutiful harvests, overcoming hardships, and the ending of extended periods of drought.

Next time we’ll look at what happened in the generations that followed the first colonists Thanksgiving celebration leading to the holiday we celebrate today.

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