When Did We Celebrate the First Thanksgiving?

November 28, 2013 in Trivia

Excerpt of First Thanksgiving by unknown artistOur national Thanksgiving Day holiday dates officially from 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November that year to be celebrated. It has become both a federal and almost universally observed public holiday in the United States. However the original event from which it derived took place two centuries earlier.

In 1621 the pilgrims celebrated with a feast following their first harvest. Edward Winslow, one of the original Mayflower travelers and a leader both on ship and in Plymouth Colony, attended the feast and chronicled the event in Mourt’s Relation, a detailed record of the pilgrims’ early colonial experience and relations with native Americans. Long after that booklet was lost and forgotten, it was rediscovered and subsequently reprinted in 1841.

Winslow’s account records there being served a bounty following a particularly successful corn harvest that “served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massosoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

Winslow also described the native Americans of the time as “a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just. The men and women go naked, only a skin about their middles.”

Despite many characterizations of Thanksgiving as a quasi-religious holiday, this was not true of the pilgrim’s feast. In “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday”, James Baker concludes the actual event in 1621 resembled more a pagan harvest celebration than a puritanical church day.