It is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and around the same part of the year in other places.
The dinner traditionally consists of foods and dishes indigenous to the Americas, namely turkey, potatoes (usually mashed), stuffing, squash, corn (maize), green beans, cranberries (typically in sauce form), and pumpkin pie
Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times.
In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar.
An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5.
Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England.
Plymouth’s Thanksgiving began with a few colonists going out “fowling,” possibly for turkeys but more probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks, since they “in one day killed as much as…served the company almost a week.” Next, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance at the settlement’s gate, doubtlessly unnerving the 50 or so colonists. Nevertheless, over the next few days the two groups socialized without incident. The Wampanoag contributed venison to the feast, which included the fowl and probably fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables, and beer. Since Plymouth had few buildings and manufactured goods, most people ate outside while sitting on the ground or on barrels with plates on their laps. The men fired guns, ran races, and drank liquor, struggling to speak in broken English and Wampanoag. This was a rather disorderly affair, but it sealed a treaty between the two groups that lasted until King Philip’s War (1675–76), in which hundreds of colonists and thousands of Native Americans lost their lives.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States – in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.
In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday – each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition.
In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, earning her the nickname the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
President Thomas Jefferson chose not to observe the holiday, and its celebration was intermittent until President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
On June 28, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Holidays Act that made Thanksgiving a yearly appointed federal holiday in Washington D.C. On January 6, 1885, an act by Congress made Thanksgiving, and other federal holidays, a paid holiday for all federal workers throughout the United States.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the date was moved to one week earlier, observed between 1939 and 1941 amid significant controversy. From 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving, by an act of Congress, signed into law by FDR, received a permanent observation date, the fourth Thursday in November, no longer at the discretion of the President.
Thanksgiving Day football games, beginning with Yale versus Princeton in 1876, enabled fans to add some rowdiness to the holiday. In the late 1800s parades of costumed revelers became common.
In 1920 Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia staged a parade of about 50 people with Santa Claus at the rear of the procession. Since 1924 the annual Macy’s parade in New York City has continued the tradition, with huge balloons since 1927.
The holiday associated with Pilgrims and Native Americans has come to symbolize intercultural peace, America’s opportunity for newcomers, and the sanctity of home and family.
The Day After Thanksgiving, also know as Black Friday, is a holiday in more than 20 states. It’s common to take trips and visit family and friends during the long weekend.