Thanksgiving’s Past: A Bountiful Journey of Harvest and Gratitude

  • Post category:Festivals

Greetings and salutations, dear reader! It is with immense pleasure that I invite you to embark upon a bountiful journey with me, a humble old Englishman who migrated to Massachusetts some time ago. I am here to enlighten you about Thanksgiving’s past. I consider myself qualified to share this tale, for I once had the honor of meeting a descendent of one of the original Pilgrims who partook in the very first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in the year of our Lord 1621.

Let us explore the chronicles of history to unravel the fascinating past of this remarkable American festivity. Our narrative encompasses harvest, gratitude, and a wealth of facts that have remained obscured to the multitudes. This account is composed with the utmost reverence for those benevolent souls who seek to instill in younger generations a deep appreciation for the roots of this esteemed cultural tradition.

The First Thanksgiving

As the autumnal leaves commence their wondrous metamorphosis, we find ourselves in the year 1621, at a humble gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This, dear friends, is where our tale begins. The Pilgrims, having just survived their first arduous winter in the New World, were in high spirits. They rejoiced in their newfound friendship with the Wampanoag tribe, who had graciously taught them the art of cultivating the land. As their crops flourished, they deemed it fitting to celebrate the abundance of the harvest with a grand feast, which was to be the genesis of the Thanksgiving we know today.

However, did you know that this original feast bore little resemblance to the Thanksgiving traditions we hold dear? Verily, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag feasted on venison, fowl, fish, and corn, but not on the plump, roasted turkey that has become synonymous with Thanksgiving. It is even said that pumpkin was served, but not in the delightful form of pie that later generations would enjoy. Instead, it was most likely consumed as a boiled or roasted dish.

Corn and pumpkin: The humble yet hearty staples that graced the table at the very first Thanksgiving, symbolizing gratitude and unity

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday in America

Ah, the passage of time has witnessed a most curious evolution of the Thanksgiving tradition. The first Thanksgiving, though a grand occasion indeed, did not immediately inspire annual observances. In fact, celebrations of thanksgiving were sporadic and varied, with local communities and individual colonies and later states occasionally holding their own festivities to express gratitude for bountiful harvests and other blessings. These early events were marked by feasting, prayer, and merriment, but it would be many years before a unified national holiday would emerge.

It was not until 1863, amidst the tumult of the American Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln, moved by the ardent entreaties of Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Hale, a prolific writer and editor, had long championed the establishment of a day dedicated to giving thanks, persistently advocating for the cause through her letters and editorials. Her passion and persistence ultimately bore fruit when President Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November would henceforth be set aside as a day of thanksgiving and praise. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law, officially designating the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, thus solidifying the tradition that endures to this day.

Thanksgiving scene during the Civil War by artist Alfred R. Waud

Canadian Thanksgiving

My dear reader, gather close, for I shall now regale you with a most enthralling tidbit, one that may very well take you by surprise: Thanksgiving, that venerated American tradition, is not exclusive to the United States! Indeed, our Canadian neighbors to the north have long been partaking in their own splendid celebrations of gratitude. Their Thanksgiving, while bearing similarities to its American counterpart, has a distinct history and flavor all its own, a testament to the enduring power of thanksgiving and the human capacity for gratitude in the face of adversity.

The Canadians observe their Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, a day set aside to honor the daring voyage of English explorer Martin Frobisher in the year of our Lord 1578. Frobisher, a seasoned seafarer, embarked upon a treacherous journey across the Atlantic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Though beset by the perils of nature and the caprices of fortune, Frobisher and his intrepid crew ultimately survived their harrowing expedition. In acknowledgment of their safe passage, they partook in a humble repast, offering their heartfelt thanks for the celestial guidance that had steered them through their daunting adventure. Thus, the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving took root, flourishing into the resplendent custom that we now know, a period of assembling with cherished ones, savoring the riches of the harvest, and expressing appreciation for the myriad gifts, grand and subtle alike, that embellish our existence.

Martin Frobisher: The intrepid explorer whose daring voyage in search of the Northeast Passage laid the foundation for Canada’s Thanksgiving tradition

Pardoning the Turkey

Permit me, kind reader, to share with you an additional obscurity: the United States is not the solitary nation to feature a presidential turkey reprieve. This enchanting convention, wherein the president grants mercy to a turkey, has captured the imagination of countless souls. The beginnings of this practice are steeped in fable and supposition, with assorted narratives ascribing its inception to different leaders and historical junctures. One such yarn proposes that it was young Tad Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, who planted the seeds for the presidential turkey absolution.

Legend has it that young Tad Lincoln beseeched his father to spare the life of a turkey fated for the family’s Yuletide meal in 1863. President Lincoln, touched by his son’s empathy, relented, and the turkey was awarded a stay of execution. Though this heartening tale has endured, it is worth noting that the contemporary turkey pardon does not directly trace its lineage to this event, and the formal custom, as we presently understand it, boasts more recent beginnings.

The prevailing belief holds that the presidential turkey pardon, in its current incarnation, was initiated by President Harry Truman in 1947, though some historians contend that it was President John F. Kennedy who first extended clemency to a turkey in 1963. Irrespective of its precise origins, the tradition has persisted, and commencing in 1989, governors of sundry American states have adopted this practice, extending mercy to the fortunate fowls within their domains. This whimsical and endearing ritual has become an indelible component of the Thanksgiving tableau, serving as a light-hearted symbol of the compassion and benevolence that should permeate our festivities.

President John F. Kennedy pardoning a turkey in 1963

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Now, I entreat you, esteemed reader, to join me as we shift our gaze to an extraordinary spectacle: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This grandiose exhibition has charmed the hearts and fancies of multitudes since its splendid inauguration in the year 1924. The parade, a veritable kaleidoscope of sumptuous floats and immense balloons, was initially envisioned by the store’s foreign-born employees. These diligent individuals, nostalgic for the animated parades they had cherished in their homelands, endeavored to pay homage to these treasured recollections by orchestrating a similarly spirited cavalcade in their adopted abode.

The premier parade, an exceptional occasion by all accounts, did not feature the emblematic balloons that have become synonymous with the event. Instead, it showcased a variety of living creatures kindly lent by the Central Park Zoo. These animals, large and small, traversed the thoroughfares of New York City, infusing the atmosphere with a symphony of sounds and an array of visual delights. It was in 1927, a mere three years after the parade’s inception, that the inaugural mammoth balloons would decorate the skies, heralding the awe-inspiring spectacles that have since become inseparably linked to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. These lofty inflatables, now an essential component of the annual celebration, persist in enchanting audiences of all ages, standing as a cherished emblem of the Thanksgiving season.

The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades used animals from the Central Park Zoo


At last, as we saunter through the captivating realm of Thanksgiving’s past, let us momentarily contemplate the emblematic significance of the cornucopia. This astonishing horn of plenty, brimming with an assortment of fruits and vegetables, epitomizes the opulence of the harvest, a central motif in our narrative. The concept of the cornucopia is rooted in the legends of Greek mythology, with tales attributing its creation to the almighty Zeus himself.

The cornucopia, an emblem of prosperity and abundance, embodies the essence of gratitude that forms the foundation of the Thanksgiving holiday. With its overflowing contents, the cornucopia is a visual reminder of the fruitful harvests that have sustained communities throughout the ages. This iconic symbol, transcending time and place, bears witness to the universal human desire to express thanks for the earth’s riches and serves as a testament to the enduring power of gratitude.

Thanksgiving cornucopia

Learn more about the cornucopia

A Final Thought

So, as we prepare to gather around our own festive tables this Thanksgiving, let us take a moment to remember the fruitful history that has led us to this moment. Let us honor the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, whose initial feast marked the beginning of a cherished tradition. Let us give thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, the tireless advocate who campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. And let us remember the countless individuals who have contributed to the evolution of this most splendid occasion.

To the venerable soul who has joined me on this journey, I trust that you are now armed with a veritable cornucopia of fascinating facts to share with eager young minds. May this knowledge inspire in them a deep appreciation for the history of Thanksgiving and the many hands that have shaped it over the centuries.

As we part ways, dear reader, I leave you with a final thought: Thanksgiving is not merely a day to indulge in the details of feasting, but a time to reflect on the many blessings in our lives. As we express our gratitude, let us also remember to extend our compassion to those who may be less fortunate. For in doing so, we embody the true spirit of Thanksgiving – a celebration of harvest, gratitude, and the bountiful journey that has brought us here.

Fare thee well, my friends, and may your own Thanksgiving be filled with joy, laughter, and the warmth of cherished memories.

Jed Holtzman Signature