Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America took place in Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the coast. He claimed the land for Spain and offered a prayer of thanks for safe passage. Later on September 8, 1565 Spanish settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida, sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and local Indians with food from ships—hardtack, beans and wine.
Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving festivals for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans, with the first celebration by Europeans taking place on September 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia. There thirty-eight settlers, all men, gave thanks and proclaimed that thereafter the day of the ship’s arrival would be observed as a religious day of thanks. In Massachusetts, Plymouth’s gave prayers of thanks in 1621 and held a harvest feast involving the Wampanoag Indians. The menu is uncertain, but foods available included wild fowl and venison.
The 1621 Pilgrim feast wasn’t repeated, but over the years New England developed an annual tradition of thanksgiving prayers after the harvest. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and by the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as an official Thanksgiving holiday. Since then every President has done the same.
Finally in 1941 Congress established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. World War II raged, and President Roosevelt delivered a famous speech celebrating four freedoms: for speech and worship, and from want and fear. Norman Rockwell created four paintings commemorating the speech. He depicted “Freedom from Want” as a family feast of roast turkey.
- The Norman Rockwell paintings were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The Treasury Department toured the paintings around the country, selling over $130 million in war bonds.
Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday, characterized by parades, football games and turkey dinners always on a Thursday. The Friday after is known as Black Friday or the official start of the retail Christmas season.
Thanksgiving dinner normally consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The National Turkey Federation estimated that about 46 million turkeys were consumed by Americans last year on the holiday. Cranberry sauce is a very American tradition. The cranberry is one of only three fruits—the others are blueberries and concord grapes—to be native to American soil.
Aside from the old question, “Why did the turkey cross the road?” (Answer: it was the chicken’s day off), there are many turkey tales.
A pro football team once finished daily practice, when a large turkey strutted onto the field. While the players gazed in amazement, the turkey walked up to the head coach and demanded a tryout. Everyone stared in silence as the turkey caught pass after pass and ran right through the defensive line. When the turkey returned to the sidelines, the coach shouted, “You’re terrific!!! Sign up for the season, and I’ll see to it that you get a huge bonus.” “Forget the bonus, the turkey sad, “All I want to know is, does the season go past Thanksgiving Day?”