Please Pass the Gravy: A Brief History of Thanksgiving


Written by Oscar Scholin, Journalist

When we think of the wonderful smells of turkey, pie, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, we immediately equate those smells with Thanksgiving. But that was not always so.


There are two main origins of the holiday now known as Thanksgiving: 1619 in Charles City County, Virginia, and 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1619, the successful arrival of 38 English settlers prompted a yearly religious ceremony dedicated to giving thanks to God. The more familiar story of the origins of Thanksgiving began in the year 1620. English colonists aboard The Mayflower arrived far north of their intended destination, which was the mouth of the Hudson Bay, after 66 grueling days at sea. The first New England winter took the lives of half of the colonists. In the spring, the remaining colonists moved on shore, where a Native American named Squanto — a person captured by English fishermen and brought to England to learn to speak English — greeted them. Squanto played an integral role in assisting the colonists by teaching them how to plant crops and how to live off of the land. In November of that year, Governor Bradford celebrated their colonists’ first harvest with a three day feast with the Wampanoag Indians and their leader, Massasoit. The menu then was unlike the menu now: lobster, seal, swan, fish, deer, fowl, and no pies or desserts (because the pilgrims’ sugar supply was all but gone).


Thanksgiving was far from becoming the national holiday that it is today. The Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving in 1623 to celebrate the end of a drought. In 1789, American President George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving address in which he urged the American people to be thankful for their freedom. The second and fourth presidents, John Adams and James Madison, continued Washington’s tradition. However, until Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday held on the last Thursday of November in 1863, during the height of the American Civil War, Americans held Thanksgiving on different days. Then, in 1941, President Roosevelt signed a bill making Thanksgiving officially celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.


Today, the turkey is by far the most popular Thanksgiving food with 90% of Americans consuming turkey on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing are also popular Thanksgiving foods. Parades are also an important point of Thanksgiving, which began in 1924 with the Macy’s New York City Thanksgiving Parade. Another tradition is the presidential pardoning of the turkey, in which 1 or 2 lucky tukeys escape their inauspicious fate.


However, the debate over the exact origins of Thanksgiving continue today. As mentioned earlier, English settlers celebrated a thanksgiving in Virginia in 1619 — 2 years before the famous thanksgiving at Plymouth. Also, other celebrations involving Europeans and natives go back even further: in 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding thanksgiving for God. Predating even the earliest European explorers, Native Americans held festivals celebrating harvests. Similar to their North American counterparts, the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans also celebrated successful harvests with feasts of thanksgivings. The Puritans had a history of fasting during difficult or strenuous times and feasting during plentiful times, long before they emigrated.


Whatever its exact origins, Thanksgiving today is a time to enjoy good food, good company, and good times, and to give thanks for all we appreciate in life.