The Invention of an American Tradition: Thanksgiving


Like every society and modern state, the United States has a number of “traditions,” many of them inherited from its immigrant cultures and some of them invented on American soil. But regardless of their origins, the process of tradition is obviously at work if we look more carefully at the introduction of the “tradition” and its evolution over time. Further, the social and political functions of tradition also become clear: society needs “traditions” to achieve social integration, establish and implant social memories, and produce the proper kind of national citizen. In fact, the great era of the invention of traditions in the U.S., and in many other parts of the world, was the late 1800s and early 1900s, as elements of the overall “nation-building” process intended to create national unity and to instill self-awareness and national pride in its members. This essay discusses the Thanksgiving traditions of America. 


History of the Thanksgiving tradition

The “tradition” that can claim the greatest antiquity on American soil is Thanksgiving. Of course, as with the case of the Argentinian tango, there was no such thing as “America” and certainly not “the United States” in the early 1600s. Worse, the facticity of Thanksgiving what “really happened” on that first occasion is largely lost in the mists of time. It does appear that some English settlers and some Native Americans ate together in Plymouth in the autumn of 1621. Significantly, the Pilgrims themselves apparently did not regard this event as “the first Thanksgiving” for two reasons. To start, days of thanksgiving were routinely celebrated by this particularly pious group of immigrants; according to Andrew Smith, “hundreds of thanksgiving proclamations were issued by ministers and governors” in New England (2003: 79), so there is no reason to presume that this was the first. Second, “Whatever happened in 1621, the Puritans did not have special memories of it. They made no subsequent mention of that autumn and did not commemorate it in later years.” (81) Smith reports only one church record of a thanksgiving feast, and that in 1636, with two later events possibly held on October 12, 1637 and December 11, 1639.

Many days for giving thanks were celebrated subsequently, including December 18, 1777 after victory at the Battle of Saratoga, but this had nothing to do with the Pilgrims or “the first Thanksgiving.” Indeed, English culture was replete with feast days, such as Guy Fawkes Day and All Saints Day, but “none of these holidays had been celebrated by the Puritans, who rejected them for religious reasons and opposed the drunkenness, rowdiness, and frivolity that often accompanied them” (79).  

Foods and Thanksgiving traditions 

Exactly what foods were on the original table is not entirely certain, and the “traditional” fare of Thanksgiving seems to have settled into place much later. It is unclear if turkey was served, since records from the period refer only to “fowl.” Potatoes could not have been featured, as potatoes were not yet known in the Northeast. Cranberries may have been on the menu but not cranberry sauce, since sugar was not yet available in the Americas either. Finally, apple pie too was not part of the festivities, as apples are not native to the Americas and did not arrive until much later. More likely, the revelers consumed deer, corn, and much seafood including cod, clams, and eels.

So where did the “tradition” of turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and apple pie come from? The most likely source is the “imaginative remembering” (see Chapter 11 of Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives) of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who was also the composer of the “traditional” rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (originally published in 1830 as “Mary and the Lamb”). Three years previously she published a novel titled Northwood: or, a Tale of New England which featured a whole chapter on Thanksgiving dinner: in it, the “roasted turkey took precedence … being placed at the head of the table,” and she described the other fixings that rounded out the meal. Inspired by the fame that she achieved with the story, she launched a campaign in 1846 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Smith reminds us that, at the time, the new United States had only two official holidays—Independence Day (July 4) and Washington’s Birthday (February 22), and “Hale believed that America needed an autumn holiday” (82).

For years she solicited presidents, congressmen, and governors to recognize her new holiday. Smith stresses that she felt “that Thanksgiving could pull the United States together as regional differences, economic self-interest, and slavery tore the nation apart” (82-3). Fortunately for her, the United States, or what was left of it, was never in more need of unity than in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. Thus, it was that on October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln finally proclaimed Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday. The original proclamation read as follows

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, the order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. The population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with a large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Highest God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union. Note that there is no direct reference to “the first Thanksgiving” or the Plymouth settlers.

Date of Thanksgiving traditions 

The final issue was setting the date for the “tradition.” As we have seen, there is no historical basis for late November: the “first Thanksgiving” could have been in October or December, and it could have been a Wednesday or Thursday. Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November, and so it was for seventy years—except for Andrew Johnson who set aside the first Thursday in December of 1865, and Ulysses Grant who preferred the third Thursday in 1869. So, for Lincoln’s first two successors, the special day was still in transition. Then, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November, at the bidding of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, for the purpose of creating a longer Christmas shopping season. And so, it was for two years, although only half of the states observed the change (23 Democratic states shifted with Roosevelt, but 23 Republican states kept the older “tradition”—and Texas and Colorado celebrated both!). But after two years of popular complaint, the special day was reset to the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Day Parade

One of the more amusing embellishments of the “tradition” is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, added in 1924. Originally called Macy’s Christmas Parade, it was entirely planned and staged by the Macy’s department store, with Santa Claus officially crowned on the balcony of Macy’s 34th Street store entrance (hence the name of the famous Christmas movie “Miracle on 34th Street”). The first parade featured live animals, but a new tradition was added to the new tradition in 1927—large inflatable balloon characters, including Felix the Cat. Since then, characters have been continuously added or changed, such as Snoopy (from the “Peanuts” comic strip), Buzz Lightyear (from “Toy Story”), and Spongebob Squarepants—none of whom were present at the “first Thanksgiving.”

Importance of Thanksgiving traditions as a cultural aspect

Of course, along the way and since, Thanksgiving—like every other “tradition” and aspect of culture—has added and dropped content. Smith finds that as early as 1867 the association—not made by Lincoln—between the new Thanksgiving and the “first Thanksgiving” was appearing in newspapers and magazines, and school textbooks soon picked up the story. One B. F. De Costa traced the “American tradition” back even further, to the Bible and then to Rome, and finally to America by way of England and the Pilgrims. But a “tradition” really becomes “traditional” when it is absorbed and replicated in the popular culture, and in 1889 Jane G. Austin published Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims with a fictional account of the First Thanksgiving, complete with turkey and (almost) all of the trimmings. But this was a project of Austin’s imagination, albeit one that has been “remembered” by generations of Americans since.


As Smith rightly concludes, “The Pilgrims and their proverbial First Thanksgiving are origin myths, tracing America to its beginnings” (85). Significantly, Plymouth was not the first settlement in North America—that honor goes to Jamestown, or if we are counting failed settlements then to Roanoke (1587), or if we are counting Spanish settlements then to St. Augustine in Florida (1565), or if we are counting failed French settlement then to Parris Island, South Carolina (1562). But since none of those adventures makes a decent origin myth, then Plymouth it is. (Interestingly, Smith notes that, since Virginia was passed over for the site of the origin of America, many Southerners rejected Thanksgiving for many years after the Civil War. But two things are true about “traditions”: the historical facts are not really relevant, and, if they succeed, they can unify even the prickliest enemies.


Smith, Andrew. 2003. “The First Thanksgiving.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and 

Culture 3 (4): 79–85.

post 2022-04-21 08:49:56
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