Saints and Strangers: The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday built upon a healthy dose of mythology and tradition.  A national holiday since 1863, Thanksgiving has come to mean turkey, football, family, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Read on to find out more about:

  • celebrated the First Thanksgiving and why they did.
  • The Native Americans view of the First Thanksgiving
  • When Thanksgiving first became a national holiday.
  • What they ate during the First Thanksgiving
  • The Origins of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day
  • Why they play NFL games on Thanksgiving 
  • Why the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving

Saints and Strangers: The First Thanksgiving   

The history of Thanksgiving is not as simple as all that and even historians don’t necessarily agree on all the details behind the holiday’s origin.

“According to Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, two years after the 1621 Thanksgiving, “Bradford did proclaim ‘a day of thanksgiveing’ to pray in thanks after rains ended a ruinous summer drought that had nearly destroyed their crops.”

Instead, the historian says, it more closely resembled a traditional English harvest festival, a secular sort of celebration that dated back to medieval villages’ custom of eating, drinking and playing games after the crops were in.

A popular image of the first Thanksgiving is a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

As for that 1621 feast, as it was a secular event, the pilgrims wouldn’t have called it a “Thanksgiving.” According to National Geographic, it wasn’t until 1841 when a Boston publisher named Alexander Young printed Winslow’s letter and referred to the event as the “First Thanksgiving”  that we started calling the 1621 feast that. 

 “…for three days we entertained and feasted.”

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.”

References:   Edward Winslow’s account appears in: Heath, Dwight, A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: Mourt’s Relation (1963); EyeWitness to America (1997); Morrison, Samuel Eliot, Builders of the Bay Colony (1930).

The First Thanksgiving From the Wampanoag Point of View

So the Pilgrims didn’t invite the Wampanoags to and eat turkey and drink some beer?

“[laughs] Ah, no. Well, let’s put it this way. People did eat together [but not in what is portrayed as “the first Thanksgiving]. It was our homeland and our territory and we walked all through their villages all the time. The differences in how they behaved, how they ate, how they prepared things was a lot for both cultures to work with each other. But in those days, it was sort of like today when you go out on a boat in the open sea and you see another boat and everyone is waving and very friendly—it’s because they’re vulnerable and need to rely on each other if something happens. In those days, the English really needed to rely on us and, yes, they were polite as best they could be, but they regarded us as savages nonetheless.”

Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer 

National Geographic’s Strangers in Our Midst

EXCERPT: Tribe leaders meet to discuss the colonists.

The Origins of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, a real trendsetter for running a household, was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln. She pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War, and, in 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.”

“Those days were finally consolidated with Lincoln, proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November in 1863 in large part thanks to an aggressive campaign by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale.

The holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa.

Abraham Lincoln set the precedent for America’s national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. 

The November proclamations continued annually, with governors issuing their own proclamations naming the day the president had set.

“That worked fine until 1939, when Roosevelt decided to change the date,” Kirkpatrick said.

Roosevelt wanted Thanksgiving to come sooner in the hopes of driving up consumer spending during the Great Depression by extending the time between the holiday and Christmas. States disagreed and issued different dates.

As a result of the disagreement, Congress finally enacted legislation in 1941, which Roosevelt signed into law, making Thanksgiving fall on the fourth Thursday of November.”


It wasn’t reall about religious freedom.

“It’s been taught that the Pilgrims came because they were seeking religious freedom, but that’s not entirely true, Mr. Loewen said.

The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money, Mr. Loewen said.

“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did. That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”

James Loewen,author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”

Also, the Pilgrims never called themselves Pilgrims. They were separatists, Mr. Loewen said. The term Pilgrims didn’t surface until around 1880.”

 What Was On the Menu at The First Thanksgiving

“Throughout her campaign, Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey’s Lady’s Book. She also published close to a dozen cookbooks. “She is really planting this idea in the heads of lots of women that this is something they should want to do,” says Wall. “So when there finally is a national day of Thanksgiving, there is a whole body of women are ready for it, who know what to do because she told them. A lot of the food that we think of—roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, even some of the mashed potato dishes, which were kind of exotic then—are there.”

“There are primary source writings about wild turkey being abundant in the area that fall, yet they do not specifically mention if they were at the First Thanksgiving.”

Tom Begley, executive assistant at Plimoth Plantation.

History of The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

“Macy’s has been at its current flagship location, at Broadway and 34th Street, since 1902. Continuing expansion made the location what Macy’s called the “world’s largest store,” an entire city block with more than 1 million square feet of retail space.   In celebration, employees organized a Christmas in 1924 featuring “floats, bands, animals from the zoo and 10,000 onlookers,” according to a Macy’s history page. It also started way up at 145th Street. The parade concluded with Santa Claus and the unveiling of the store’s Christmas windows. Three years later, the Christmas Parade was renamed the Thanksgiving Day Parade.   Macy’s didn’t invent the practice. Philadelphia has the oldest Thanksgiving Day parade: Its Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, now the 6ABC – Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade, debuted in 1920.”


“Thanksgiving Day football, once a tradition among the high schools and colleges of America, has more or less faded into oblivion in most sections of the country.”

“But it is still alive in the National Football League in two franchise cities, Detroit and Dallas, where Thanksgiving Day football has become a normal, expected way of life.  Beginning in 1966, Dallas has missed playing on the holiday only in 1975 and 1977.”

“However, when it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, most fans first think of the Lions and the tradition that was started in 1934. It was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933.”

Why do the Lions and Cowboys always play on Thanksgiving?

“But to answer your primary question, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving since 1934, and the Cowboys since 1966, and both for the same reason – because the teams’ owners understood that Thanksgiving was a day when a captive audience awaited, a millions-strong contingent of ready-made football fans willing to watch anything to avoid talking with their relatives. Since 1978, Dallas and Detroit have each hosted a game.”

Thanksgiving Affords Rare Opportunity to Eat Large Quantities of Food and Watch Football


WASHINGTON—Noting that the nation’s long wait is now at an end, sources confirmed Thursday that the Thanksgiving holiday will grant millions of Americans the rare chance to eat incredibly large amounts of food while watching football games. “This kind of day doesn’t come around too often, so I’m excited to finally be able to sit back with family and friends over some delicious food and watch football for the entire afternoon,” said 34-year-old Arnold Dawson of Henrico, VA, echoing a sentiment held by Americans across the country have come to cherish the lone day of the year when they can simply gorge themselves on enormous meals in front of a television showing nine hours of uninterrupted NFL coverage. “I mean, when else can you curl up in your living room with second or third helpings of food and watch a 12:30 p.m. game, a 4:30 p.m. game, and then an 8:30 p.m. game? It makes me wish Thanksgiving was every week.” Reports also confirmed that, by the end of the evening, the populace will already be excitedly thinking ahead to New Year’s Day, which will afford them an equally rare opportunity to shovel food into their mouths, watch a half-dozen college football games, and eventually pass out on the couch.


I'm routinely overestimated.

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