Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of every November. Families gather to share food, stories, and memories. The beloved holiday is an ode to kin, friends, and American history. However, Thanksgiving's history is much deeper and full of factoids than meets the eye. Here are four things you probably didn't know about Thanksgiving.
The ritual of gathering to share a bounty after a successful harvest is not unique to the Thanksgiving holiday. Some historians suggest that the holiday is a modern approach to rituals displayed by ancient societies, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
Many ancient civilizations would use fasting and feasting as a spiritual practice. Fasting was typically done during times of drought or famine, a great difference to modern fasting, which is typically recommended as a cleanse. When harvests were successful and bountiful, ancient people would gather for large feasts to break their fasts. Feasts were often celebrated over days or weeks, where Thanksgiving takes place only one day a year.
During times of abundance, offerings would be given to various gods and entities to thank them for blessing the community with a successful harvest. These rituals have all been recorded in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman history. The Jewish holiday, Sukkot, also shares a resemblance to Thanksgiving traditions.
Sarah Josepha Hale
You're likely familiar with the famous song "Mary Had a Little Lamb" but might not be knowledgeable about its writer. Written by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830, the then-writer and leader of women's advocacy holds a surprising and fundamental tie to the Thanksgiving holiday.
Hale, born in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788, became committed to brainstorming ways that tensions could be relieved during the Civil War that began in 1861. Hale began writing to current political figures during the period to discuss her ideas for creating a national holiday. The holiday would be centered around gathering, and honoring the first harvest meal shared by the first settlers and Wampanoag people.
Hale began campaigning the idea of Thanksgiving Day, a not-yet-declared national holiday. She believed it would be a catalyst for peaceful gathering and sharing of resources during tense relations between the north and the south. After writing letter after letter to the then president, Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving Day was officially accepted as a national holiday on October 3rd, 1863.
Without Hale's conviction and perseverance, Thanksgiving may not have existed as a holiday until decades later or may not have existed at all.
When the settlers first arrived in Plymouth in 1620, many did not survive. The lack of food and susceptibility to new diseases caused many settlers to die from deficiencies and infections. As those remaining began to construct the village of Plymouth, they were greeted by Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe.
Squanto had been sold into slavery by a sea captain and later escaped to London, where he learned English. Years later, he returned to his previous home with the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto assisted the Pilgrims with their agricultural advances. He taught them how to sow the land to plant and how to catch fish from local streams.
It was in this relationship that the first Thanksgiving occurred to celebrate the first successful harvest of the Pilgrims with the help of Squanto.
The First Thanksgiving Lasted 3 Days
While Thanksgiving was not coined a holiday until 1863, the first Thanksgiving actually took place in 1621. The gathering was a celebration held by the settlers in Plymouth, often called the Pilgrims, Squanto, and over 50 members of the Wampanoag tribe.
For three days, both settlers and tribal members gathered to share in food, drink, and celebration for a successful harvest season. The gathering was especially significant, as it signaled a chance for the settlers and Wampanoag to create peace between them after tensions evolved over land and resources.
Thanksgiving was not officially deemed a national holiday until 1863.
The first Thanksgiving was used as a peace offering between settlers and the Wampanoag tribe.
Without Sarah Josepha Hale, Thanksgiving may have never become a national holiday.