For thousands of years, people have set aside a day to celebrate the
autumn harvest, giving thanks for a plentiful growing season. Ancient
Hebrews held a special eight-day feast to celebrate their harvest
season. And, people in ancient Greece dedicated a nine-day harvest
festival to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Similarly,
pre-Christian Europeans marked a good harvest with a large feast
before crops were gathered and stored for the winter.
Celebrations surrounding the autumn harvest have continued throughout history, and many modern cultures have set aside a specific day to give thanks. The date and customs may vary from country to country, but the desire to take time and reflect on life's blessings remains the same.
In the United States, this day of thanks is called Thanksgiving. It is a national holiday observed on the fourth Thursday of November. On this day, family and friends get together for a feast to celebrate their good fortune, relax and enjoy one another's company. It is also the unofficial beginning of the winter holiday season.
The initial "Thanksgiving" feast was held in 1621, was really a traditional English harvest celebration. The Pilgrims shared it with the Native Americans because they had taught the colonists to plants crops and hunt wild game. Without the Native Americans, the Pilgrims may not have survived the harsh winter and been able to celebrate their first harvest of plentiful crops in the New World.
At the harvest feast, modern Thanksgiving staples such as pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, corn and mashed potatoes were not served. Since historical evidence shows wild fowl was part of the harvest festival, it is possible that turkey was part of the Pilgrims' meal.
Historians believe that seafood and wild game were the main dishes at the autumn celebration since the colonists lived near the Atlantic Ocean as well as the forest. Seasonal vegetables such as squash may have been part of the harvest feast, however, vegetable dishes did not play an important role in people's diet like they do today. Sweet desserts also did not accompany the meal due to a dwindling, or nonexistent, supply of sugar. And, without ovens, it was impossible for the Pilgrims to make breads, pies or cakes.
The colonists' first harvest feast lasted for three days. Food was served all at once, instead of in courses, so people ate whatever they pleased in the order that they desired. The more important members at the feast were given the best pieces of meat, while the rest of the diners ate whatever was closest to them. Since the Pilgrims didn't use forks or plates, they ate their meal straight off the table with spoons, knives or their fingers. They used large napkins to wipe their hands and also wrapped it around food when it was too hot to hold.
Even though we think of the harvest festival as "the first Thanksgiving," the colonists did not use a name for their autumn celebration. The occasion was not called "Thanksgiving" because the word had a completely different meaning to the Pilgrims. To them, a day of "thanksgiving" was actually a religious holiday set aside for giving thanks to God. As a result, the Pilgrims would never have given such a religious name to a secular day marked by feasting, dancing, singing, and playing games.
Instead their harvest celebration was simply identified by the season and the activities involved. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the feast we know today acquired the name "Thanksgiving."
Since the autumn harvest usually occurred sometime between late September and the middle of October, the colonists' harvest festival wasn't celebrated in November, like it is today. For hundreds of years, people simply celebrated the harvest whenever nature was ready. In 1863, President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. However, since he did not establish it as a national holiday each state had the right to decide when it would celebrate Thanksgiving. It wasn't until 1941 that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.