With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, I thought it would be fun to explore the history of Thanksgiving and some of the traditions that are still going strong. Let’s dive right in.

The First Thanksgiving In Plymouth

This is the Thanksgiving most everyone in the United States of America think of because every year the story of colonists and natives is retold. Because the story is retold so often I will do a brief recap. 

The 102 colonists aboard the Mayflower first arrived at plymouth rock on November 11, 1620 concluding a 66 day voyage. Because their arrival was so late in the season they did not have time to plant crops nor did they know how their new environment would take to the plants they had brought with them. Able bodied men built houses and shelter while the others remained on the ship. Disease ran rampant brought on by lack of proper nutrition. After the first winter only 52 colonists had survived. 

On March 17th, 1621 pilgrims had their first encounter with Native Americans. Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, had sent Samoset who spoke a little english to meet with the settlers. He left the next day with some gifts and returned later with 5 more men. The chief later brought in Tisquantum who had been kidnapped by Europeans when he was a boy and taught their English language. Tisquantum also known as Squanto was able to successfully negotiate a treaty between the colonists and the Massasoit tribe and on on April 1, 1621 it was signed by both parties. The natives taught settlers how to plant seeds to optimize growth and introduced them to maze corn. The Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was successful and in November the group’s leader, Governor William Bradford, called for a feast to celebrate their good fortune. Hunters were sent into the wilderness to hunt game for the event. Members of the local Native American tribes were invited and brought deer meat to add to the menu. The celebration lasted for three days. Edward Winslow was among the group of Pilgrims present at the first Thanksgiving. He describes the scene:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.

At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

A Long History of Giving Thanks

Even though Plymouth is the most thought of story it isn’t the reason we actually celebrate Thanksgiving day. The Europeans and Native Americans have had special days of giving thanks long before Plymouth. It was a common tradition to give thanks for the harvest season and indeed was the original intention of the feast.

The Official Federal Holiday

According to the US National Archives, on 28 September 1789 the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking that the president of the United States recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving. A few days later, George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday 26 November 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” – the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.

The dates of Thanksgiving celebrations varied as subsequent presidents came and went, and it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation – in the midst of the Civil War – that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving Tradition History
Eating Turkey Since William Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don’t serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn’t so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Pardoning a Turkey- On November 17, 1989 President George H.W. Bush was the first president to issue an official “pardon” to a grateful turkey as reporters and 30 schoolchildren were gathered in the White House Rose Garden. The public presentation of a plump gobbler to the chief executive in the lead-up to Thanksgiving had been a time-honored photo op since the 1940s, but Bush would add a new presidential tradition of his own. After noting that the turkey appeared “understandably nervous,” Bush added: “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” for an incomplete list of pardoned turkeys click here. There had been others turkeys granted stays of executions before President Bush, but the first president to make it official and a tradition was George H.W. Bush.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade The store staged its first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924. That year it was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade, and it followed a route from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the Macy’s store at 34th Street and Broadway. Three floats (pulled by horses), four bands and zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo — camels, donkeys, elephants and goats — starred in the parade. Santa Claus was last in the lineup, a tradition that continues to this day.
Football The first Thanksgiving Day football game was played in Philadelphia in 1869. At the collegiate level, Princeton University and Yale University played on Thanksgiving from 1876 to 1881.


The tradition grew as many high schools began playing on Thanksgiving each year as well. Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the United States (established April 23, 1635), began playing English High School of Boston on Thanksgiving in 1887 at Harvard University. It is the longest continuous Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the country.


The first professional football games on Thanksgiving were played November 25, 1920. No games were played on the holiday from 1941-44 because of World War II.