The Origins of Common Thanksgiving Traditions

We have many Thanksgiving traditions that originate hundreds of years ago. Brush up on your Thanksgiving trivia with a little bit of the history behind many popular traditions.

The history of Thanksgiving extends back to the Pilgrims in 1621, when colonists in what is now Plymouth, Mass., had completed their first harvest with the help from area Native Americans. This three-day festival was a celebration meant to give thanks for the cooperative guidance given to the Pilgrims by the Wampanoag Indian tribe during their hard winter in Plymouth Rock. Although the feast wasn't repeated the next year, colonial regions adopted the festival meal idea and set their own dates at first.

George Washington proclaimed in 1789 a holiday for thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Different states seemed to choose their own dates after that for a while. A book editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned heavily for a national holiday of Thanksgiving Day, and after 30 years of writing to senators and governors, Abraham Lincoln issued a White House proclamation calling on the whole American people to celebrate Thanksgiving together to restore the wounded nation to unity. He wanted the nation to focus on being thankful for fruitful fields and healthful skies and stop feeling badly about the Civil War.

So where did the turkey tradition come from? Benjamin Franklin made a campaign to adopt the turkey as the national bird, and painter Norman Rockwell made a picture of family gathering around a most delicious looking turkey dinner. Both may have had an effect on solidifying the tradition of turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. It is unclear whether turkey was on the table at the Pilgrims' feast. Probable foods included smoked fowl and venison, fish, lobster, nuts, berries, fruits, clams and lettuce.

Pumpkin pie was not likely eaten back then either, as there was no flour for pastries. Boiled pumpkin may have been consumed, however. I'm sure most would agree that pumpkin pie is much more delicious. Maybe that's why it became the Thanksgiving dessert of choice.

Traditions of family togetherness and thankfulness survived intact for hundreds of years, and remain the key themes of the Thanksgiving holiday.

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