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This article was originally published Nov. 23, 2007.
This week, elementary school children across America participate in pageants celebrating Thanksgiving.
They don Pilgrim and Indian outfits and attempt to recreate an event from the early moments of colonial life on this continent. History and popular culture have added elements to this drama along the way.
Historians differ about the exact date of the first Thanksgiving, but they agree it occurred in the autumn of 1621. That first Thanksgiving was a secular feast put together by Plymouth Gov. William Bradford, who had come to the New World with 100 other Pilgrims on the Mayflower. The Plymouth Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to that first Thanksgiving, a feast that lasted for three days.
Today, Thanksgiving meals feature turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, vegetables and a wide assortment of desserts. According to Edward Winslow, who was at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the meal included corn, barley, wild turkeys and venison.
The next recorded Thanksgiving happened in 1623. This was the first religiously motivated celebration by the Calvinist Pilgrims. But this time, the Indians were not invited.
In 1777, the Continental Congress declared the first national celebration of Thanksgiving. It was celebrated only that year and did not become an annual event.
President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving.
Every president since Lincoln – except Franklin Roosevelt – has proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving. Roosevelt decided to make Thanksgiving the third Thursday in November in 1931, 1940 and 1941 to add more shopping days until Christmas in order to bolster the economy.
In 1941, Congress declared Thanksgiving a national holiday that would always fall on the fourth Thursday in November, the way it is today.
Thanksgiving is not celebrated only in America. Canada also has a Thanksgiving, which is observed on the second Monday in October. The United Kingdom has a similar holiday called Harvest Festival that is celebrated on the Sunday on or near the harvest moon, the full moon in September.
Thanksgiving has come a long way from the celebration of a group of Pilgrims struggling to survive in the New World. Today, Thanksgiving for many Americans begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in midtown Manhattan. It then becomes a day of football and a huge meal that typically takes hours to prepare and a few minutes to consume.
And Americans consume plenty on Thanksgiving. In 2005, 649 million pounds of cranberries were produced in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Also in 2005, 1.6 billion pounds of sweet potatoes came out of the ground and 256 million turkeys were raised in the United States. The typical American consumed 13.7 pounds of turkey in 2003, a good portion of which was surely devoured on the fourth Thursday in November.
Benjamin Franklin even wanted to make the turkey the national bird.