As traditions go, this one has more than one story about how, where, and when it got started. Wherever it began, the first celebration was likely a century before the Mayflower dropped anchor off the east coast. It is also interesting to note that during times of conflict—and our society has been continually marred by them—people continue to celebrate our one and only true American holiday: Thanksgiving Day.
1541. Texas. An historical marker erected by the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists outside Canyon, Texas, states that Father Juan de Padilla conducted a Thanksgiving service there in May 1541 for an army of 1,500 accompanying Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.
1565. Florida. Another (largely unsubstantiated) historical account suggests that 800 Spanish settlers in St. Augustine celebrated with the native Timucuan people in 1565. The meal likely consisted of (for the Indians) alligator, bear, wild turkey, venison, tortoise, and seafood. For the Europeans, it would have been biscuits and a rich garbanzo and pork stew washed down with lots of red wine.
1621. Massachusetts. The most famous celebration, again between Native peoples and European settlers, and the one most often acted out by school children, is reported to have taken place in the late fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where over 90 Wampanoag warriors joined 22 settlers (all but four of them men) in a three-day feast. They likely ate deer and vegetables, including pumpkin. (The paucity of women was due to the fact that over 75 percent of the women and children had perished on the passage.)
1777-1789. Revolutionary War. George Washington called for a national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November in 1777 to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. The war was responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths*, which included 8,000 soldiers plus others who died of disease or as a result of the war.
1841. Pilgrims. The first time anyone claimed that the Pilgrims hosted the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1863. Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln declared the annual Thanksgiving celebration to be on the final Thursday in November and to celebrate “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” during the Civil War, which accounted for approximately 655,204* deaths (from conflict and resulting from related disease.)
1876. Football. The first Thanksgiving football game was a college match between Yale and Princeton. Today, the NFL holds three Thanksgiving games each November, two of which always feature the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.
1917-1918. World War I. 116,516* deaths (including conflict and the resulting post-combat injuries and disease). There was no Thanksgiving for overseas troops.
1918. Spanish Flu. Because of the pandemic, indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Churches, schools, and public buildings were closed, although outdoor celebrations were allowed (but limited due to weather conditions). On September 28, 1918, two months before Thanksgiving, a Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia prompted a huge outbreak of Spanish flu in the city. By the time the pandemic ended, an estimated 20 to 50 million people were dead worldwide!
1924. First Macy’s Parade. The department store announced its very first big Christmas Parade two weeks before Thanksgiving to celebrate the expansion of its Herald Square superstore in New York City.
1930s. Depression. Food prices were inflated during the Depression, so many people cooked at home, culminating in an average cost of $5.50 to feed a family of six. Compare that to what it costs today!
1939. Franksgiving. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the date back a week to allow for a long Christmas shopping season. It was an unpopular move, called “Franksgiving” by traditionalists and political rivals. Half of the 48 states did not accept the change.
1941-1945. World War II. Congress moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November. An estimated 3 percent of the world’s population, or 75-85 million people, perished, including 405,399* U.S. troops.
1943. Freedom From Want. Norman Rockwell’s famous family portrait of Thanksgiving Dinner, Freedom from Want, was considered a political statement.
1950-53 Korean Conflict. Turkey and mashed potatoes were served to troops in the field on three consecutive Thanksgivings before the conflict, which killed 36,574 troops*, ended.
1968. Viet Nam War. The American military provided troops with hot, traditional Thanksgiving dinners, some flown by helicopter to remote areas. Total deaths of US troops are tabulated at 58.209*.
1989. Pardon the Turkey. The annual White House tradition officially started with George H.W. Bush in 1989.
2008. Great Recession. The economic downturn made Thanksgiving and holiday shopping difficult and meant cutbacks, but families still celebrated.
2020. Covid. Celebrating today looks a lot different. To date, the disease has caused 1,254,567 deaths (239,500 in the U.S.) directly or indirectly as exacerbated by underlying health conditions, and the count is rising daily. These numbers are obviously far higher than the 34,200 deaths attributed to flu in the 2018-2019 season. For this reason, Thanksgiving 2020 will mean taking precautions and devising creative ways to celebrate [related story] without spreading this virulent and highly contagious disease.
Freedom From Want
Ed: This is an important story in view of the tumultuous times we are experiencing due to political division and the Covid pandemic. Please click on the link at the end of the story to read it in full.
What Is Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving Picture Really About?
We all know Rockwell’s Freedom from Want by heart, even if we don’t know its title.
Norman Rockwell’s classic painting of an American family at Thanksgiving (pictured here) has stood for seven decades as the single image most Americans associate with turkey day. But few Americans know the full story behind (or even the title of) Rockwell’s painting—the political and human rights roots of the text Rockwell aimed at illustrating. As we plan to sit down as a nation and give thanks, it’s important to remember what Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving picture’s really about.
…Over four consecutive issues during February and March 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published essays on each of FDR’s Four Freedoms, each accompanied by a painting by Norman Rockwell. To depict Freedom from Fear, Rockwell painted a mother and father tucking their children into bed to sleep the sleep of the blissfully innocent. For Freedom of Worship, Rockwell collected together a wide array of faces each with hands clasped in prayer—a fascinating image of spiritual solidarity at a time when Jews were being annihilated across Europe for their faith. In Freedom of Speech, Rockwell painted a single brave soul standing up at a meeting to speak his mind and bare his soul. When it came time to symbolize Freedom from Want, Rockwell chose Thanksgiving as the perfect symbolic moment for Americans. [ Read full story in The Big Think]
Who ate turkey on the moon?
Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin ate road turkey in foil packets for their first meal on the moon.
Are turkeys native to America?
Yes, but south of the border, where wild turkeys flourished in what is now Mexico. They were taken to Europe, by early explorers, where they were domesticated, then brought to North American by English colonists.
How can you tell a wild turkey from a domestic bird?
Domestic birds have white-tipped tails and are more than twice the size of than their wilder cousins, which have dark-tipped tails.
Who thought the turkey would be a better national symbol than the bald eagle?
Ben Franklin. Why? In a letter to his daughter, he compared the two birds, pointing out that only the turkey is native to America.
What are the three peculiar parts of the turkey?
The wattle, snood, and beard. The wattle, under the beak, and the snood, hanging over it, both turn bright red on the tom it is excited. The beard, the wobbly thing on the turkey’s chest is made of keratin bristles like hair and horns on mammals.
Is the turkey named after the country Turkey?
Yes. But by accident. When Turkish traders brought native guinea fowls from Africa to Europe, the Europeans incorrectly classified both birds as the same. But, although the name stuck, the birds are not even related.
How big does a turkey get?
Domestic toms can weigh up to 50 pounds, the hen only about 16. Wild toms go up to 20 pounds and the hens to around 12 pounds.
Stars & Stripes Magazine. “Thanksgiving in WW1, France.”
Big Think. “Norman Rockwell painting.”
Farmers Amanac. “Thanksgiving Day.”
Farmer’s Almanac. “Canadian Thanksgiving.”
The Atlantic. “Thanksgiving in a Foxhole, 1950.”