Few American holidays have a history as steeped in myth and legend as Thanksgiving Day, which reaches back nearly 400 years to the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 at Plymouth Plantation in what is now Massachusetts, and at the Berkley Hundred and Jamestown in Virginia.
This link to the roots of American history is reinforced by the Thanksgiving Proclamations of three of the greatest American presidents at defining moments in American history: George Washington in 1789 at the birth of the Republic; Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the height of the Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 during the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II.
The Pilgrims’ 1621 Thanksgiving
The Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving lasted three days and was more of a traditional English harvest feast than a “day of Thanksgiving.” Today’s traditions are based on two separate contemporary accounts.
First is Edward Winslow’s account, in a letter dated December 12, 1621: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
The second was written about twenty years after the fact by Governor William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford’’s History was rediscovered in 1854 after having been taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery prompted a greater American interest in the history of the Pilgrims, which eventually led to Lincoln’s decision to make Thanksgiving a holiday.
It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”
President Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving
Over 150 years after the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, President Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be held on November 26, 1789. This first Presidential Proclamation was based on a Joint Resolution of both Houses of Congress, which requested him to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Washington’s Thanksgiving was to celebrate the new Constitution in the first year of his two presidential terms (30 Apr 1789 – 4 Mar 1797). The day was widely celebrated throughout the 13 states. Most newspapers printed the proclamation and announced plans for public functions in honor of the day.
President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving
In mid-century, Mrs. Sarah Hale, a founder of Vassar College, author of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” and editor of the most influential women’s magazine, the Lady’s Book, “the arbiter of the parlor, the textbook of the kitchen,” began campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday as early as 1827. She wrote that, “We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.” To Sarah Hale Thanksgiving would be a therapeutic holiday. “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures.”
On October 3, 1863, following important victories in the Civil War at Gettysburg, PA (July 1-3) and Vicksburg, MS (Mar 29-July 4), President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday with his 1863 Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. … No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving.”
President Roosevelt’s 1939 Thanksgiving
Today, and for nearly 70 years, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, who changed it from Abraham Lincoln’s designation as the last Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving in America today brings the family together for a “traditional Thanksgiving dinner.” If you can’t make it to your family Thanksgiving, then you can join many celebrations by the American community in Ho Chi Minh City, ranging from the annual AmCham Thanksgiving “Turkey Shoot” Golf Outing followed by a traditional Thanksgiving mid-day dinner, to the many Thanksgiving Dinners offered by restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City.
Other Famous Images of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Day 1844 “Over the river and through the wood … ”
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
Over the river, and through the wood—
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.
Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, “Ting-a-ling-ding”,
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!
Home to Thanksgiving
Currier & Ives, 1867 Library of Congress
Winter scene. Oxen pulling skid of logs at foreground center. Couple being greeted at doorway to house on right. Man in doorway of barn left background.
One of Currier & Ives’ most recognized images, Home to Thanksgiving, illustrates the satisfaction and contentment of a city man returning to his country home to celebrate this traditional American holiday. He steps away from his elegant horse-drawn carriage to meet his welcoming parents at the front door. George Durrie, nicknamed ‘the snowman,” was known for his peaceful and idealized snow scenes of New England. Here he shows the roofs of the buildings as well as the ground blanketed with white fluffy snow. The animals are healthy and the buildings are in good repair. The shiny quality of the paint on the tree trunks is a result of gum arabic, a substance added to watercolor to increase brightness and gloss.
Mrs. Thaddeus Wheaton, the Rockwell family cook, was actually the model for the grandmother serving the turkey. Rockwell was known for using friends and family in his paintings.
“I painted the turkey in Freedom From Want on Thanksgiving Day. Mrs. Wheaton, our cook, cooked it, I painted it and we ate it.” -Norman Rockwell
Examining this painting, we see a large family gathered around their table for a feast. We presume the occaison is Thanksgiving because of the huge turkey being served. Both the good china and the good silver are on the table.
Children and grandchildren, conversing happily with each other, populate the holiday table on both sides. Grandpa is at the head of the table and has his carving tools ready to slice and serve the mouth-watering bird.
Posted: Oct 27, 2012. Updated: Oct 27, 2017.