The Origins of the Thanksgiving Festival

Turkeys of CaliforniaPhoto: Hey Paul

North Americans have a choice of two Thanksgiving festivals to celebrate. Canadians use the first date: the second Monday of October. On that day, however, Americans are celebrating Columbus Day. They wait until the last Thursday of November to celebrate a Thanksgiving feast.

What are the origins of this twin holiday? How did the festive elements of turkeys, corn and pumpkins become part of the celebration?

The Encyclopedic View

The Encyclopaedia Britannica relates the most widespread story. In Plymouth, in what would become the state of Maine, some Pilgrim colonists hunted and killed some birds in the autumn of 1621. Soon after, about ninety natives of the Wampanoag tribe joined the fifty or so colonists for a few days of feasting.

Image: Pilgrims on a Turkey in Macys ParadePhoto: �ellie�

The Wampanoag brought venison; the meals may have included seafood and vegetables. The celebration cemented a good relationship between these groups that lasted over fifty years. Later, both sides were caught up in King Philip’s War (This was the Anglicized name for a native leader, not a king of France).

The colonists in New England observed many “thanksgiving days”, and for many reasons. Agricultural success was one reason; but military or political events could lead to a day of prayer and giving thanks to God.

However, there was no national American consensus on observing a holiday that had its roots in New England. As well, the event may have had partisan overtones with political speeches. Some would rather have retained a simple religious observance.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted holding a national Thanksgiving Day. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1863 as the first national Thanksgiving.

In Canada, the first Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1578 by Martin Frobisher. It marked his ship’s safe arrival in Newfoundland. Parliament proclaimed the holiday in 1879, although the current date in October was only settled in 1957.

Twin Tom TurkeysPhoto: Alan L

The Spanish View from USA Today

While the Pilgrims receive the credit, another view was reported in USA Today. Robyn Gioia wrote in America’s REAL First Thanksgiving that the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles first celebrated a Thanksgiving meal with the native Timucua tribe in 1565. The meal consisted largely of bean soup.

An Opinion of The Times

In yet a third view, the New York Times has observed that French Huguenots – a Protestant group – escaped religious persecution by travelling to Florida in 1564. They held a Thanksgiving for their safe journey. They founded a settlement, Fort Caroline, and established friendly relations with the native Timucuan tribe.

The Floridian settlement was attacked by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez under the orders of King Philip II. With the Spanish success – which also retaliated for some French piracy – later historians had no reason to mention a French origin for colonial Thanksgiving celebrations.

The Synthesis of Thanksgiving Feasts

These origins show a very ecumenical origin to Thanksgiving. Spanish Catholics, French Huguenots, Pilgrims (in the Protestant Calvinist tradition) and “Anglican” Protestants represented by Frobisher in Newfoundland all expressed religious gratitude by sharing a meal.

Cooked stuffed turkeyPhoto: bcmom

The meat course of turkey apparently evolved from whatever fowl happened to be available. Britannica opined that ducks and geese were more likely to be the first birds slaughtered in New England. Few eat fish or other seafood for Thanksgiving dinner.

Pumpkins in a storePhoto: Crystl

Pumpkins – or some type of squash – was available. Corn, more accurately known as maize, was native to North America. The corn was probably multi-hued, and now is called “Indian corn”.

Indian CornPhoto: Cindy Funk

Retrace the Dates

Canada was last to settle on its date for Thanksgiving, in 1957. Its Parliament was some sixteen years later than the United States in proclaiming a national holiday (1879 versus 1863).

Assuming that all the historians quoted above are accurate, the Pilgrims were the slowest to celebrate a Thanksgiving festival. They waited until 1621. Frobisher’s Newfoundland celebration in 1578 preceded that by some forty-three years.

However, the Spanish and French were in nearly a dead heat for first place: 1565 for Spain’s de Aviles and 1564 for the French Huguenots. Unfortunately their particular traditions are not acknowledged as part of mainstream folklore for the modern Thanksgiving festival.

One may wonder whether Christopher Columbus paused to give thanks by feasting in 1492.

Encyclopaedia Britinnica (2010), “Thanksgiving Day“, referenced Sept. 16, 2010.
Kenneth C. Davis, New York Times, “A French Connection“, published Nov. 25, 2008, referenced Sept. 16, 2010.
Craig Wilson, USA Today, “Florida teacher chips away at Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving myth“, updated Nov. 21, 2007, referenced Sept. 16, 2010.