Thanksgiving is the ultimate New England holiday. It has deep historical roots in this region and the menu, with its emphasis on turkey, pies, root vegetables, and cranberry sauce, draws upon traditional Yankee cookery. But what are the true origins of the holiday?
As children Americans are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims. Surprisingly that is not true. It is true that in the autumn of 1621 the Plymouth colonists held a feast in honor of their first successful harvest in Massachusetts. They feasted upon corn, wild fowl, and five deer that were brought to the feast by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and ninety of his men. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag partied for three straight days. I'm sure everyone had a big food hangover.
However, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of this harvest festival. We celebrate Thanksgiving because of Puritan religious culture. The Puritans, both in England and here in North America, did not celebrate many holidays. Christmas? No thanks. St. Valentine's Day? No way. Halloween? Definitely not! Unlike the Catholics and Anglicans they mainly celebrated what were known as 'providential holidays.' These were holidays announced to commemorate significant events in a given year. For example if things went poorly (plagues, droughts, military defeat) the Puritan leaders would announce a fast day. People were expected to abstain from eating, attend religious services and atone for their sins.
On the other hand when things went well (military victory, end of a plague, etc.) a day of Thanksgiving would be announced. People would feast with their families, give thanks for their blessings, and (again) attend religious services. It's important to note that Thanksgiving days always occurred on weekdays, lasted for one day only, and involved religious services. It's also important to note that some years had multiple Fast days and Thanksgivings, depending on what was happening. Some years might have none at all. They were declared as needed.
Here are some examples. In 1630 the Puritans in Boston declared five fast days from April through June but only one Thanksgiving day on July 8. In Scituate there were 34 fast days from 1634 - 1653, but only nine Thanksgivings. Over time the practice of providential holidays gradually spread from Puritan New England to the other American colonies. John Hancock, leader of the Continental Congress, declared July 20, 1775 as a fast day for the thirteen colonies. In 1777 December 18 was declared a Thanksgiving day for all the colonies. When George Washington became the first president he proclaimed two Thanksgivings: November 11, 1789 and Thursday, February 19, 1795. After the Civil War Thanksgiving finally became an official, regularly occurring national holiday.
I know that's a lot of dates but the important thing is that Thanksgiving was celebrated at many times and for many different reasons. It didn't have one origin and it was not celebrated to commemorate the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth. The Pilgrims did not become linked with Thanksgiving in popular American culture until the early 1900s, several decades after the account of their 1621 feast was rediscovered by historians in 1820.
Here's the really strange part: technically the 1621 harvest celebration was not even a day of Thanksgiving. It didn't involve any religious services and it lasted for a full three days rather than just one. It did not meet the criteria for a Puritan Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving, and other Puritans wouldn't have recognized it as such. It was just a harvest celebration.
The Plymouth harvest celebration was initially declared the first Thanksgiving by Reverend Alexander Young in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Reverend Young's claim slowly gained popularity and is now widely accepted as fact. I only learned otherwise when I read James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). Baker was a historian at Plimoth Plantation who was puzzled that he couldn't find any sources connecting the Pilgrims to Thanksgiving earlier than the 19th century. When he started to research he realized why.
I love myths and legends, and even if we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Pilgrims their story has still become an important part of the holiday. The aspirational image of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasting together is a model of something we should all strive for in our holiday celebration and our lives.