November 06, 2011

When Was the First Thanksgiving?

When I was a kid, I was taught that the Pilgrims had the first Thanskgiving in 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag, who had helped them adapt to their new homeland, and everyone had a great time. We've been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since.

Apparently the history of Thanksgiving is a little more complicated. My friend Robert Sullivan gave me a copy of James W. Baker's Thanksgiving: the Biography of An American Holiday, and what I read was very illuminating. James Baker was the director of research at Plimoth Plantation, so I think he knows what he's talking about. It seems the roots of Thankgiving go back farther than Plymouth, all the way back to England.

Was this the first Thanksgiving?

According to Baker, the Puritans in England regularly declared fast days, when the people atoned for their sins, and days of thanksgiving, when they celebrated God's providence. Fast days were declared when there was trouble in the world - plagues, wars, droughts, etc. Thanksgiving days were declared when things were going well - victory in war, a bountiful harvest, the death of an unpopular dictator, etc. Fasts and thanksgiving days were not calendrical holidays celebrated annually on particular dates, like we have today, but were announced by the clergy based on world or community events, and were known as "providential holidays." Some years could have several of both, some years could have none.

Only clergy were allowed to announce fast days and thankgiving days, since both involved lengthy church services. On fast days, people abstained from all food. On thanksgiving days, the church service was followed by feasting.

After the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, the first holiday the clergy announced was a day of fasting in July of 1623, during a serious drought. As the Puritans established more settlements in New England they declared other providential holidays, to commemorate things like the end of the Pequot War, or an unusually large catch of fish.

As the colonies became larger, local governments took on the job of declaring annual fast days and thanksgiving days. A fast day was usually celebrated every spring (conveniently when there was not much food available), and a day of thanks was celebrated annually in late November or December, when there was plenty of food available after the harvest and livestock slaughter.

So where does the Pilgrim and Wampanoag harvest celebration of 1621 fit into this history? Interestingly, although the Pilgrims were quite thankful for the harvest, that celebration was not declared an official day of thanks by the clergy. In his journal, Governor Bradford makes note of the feasting, but does not call it a thanksgiving holiday. So technically, that celebration in 1621 was not really the first Thanksgiving. It was, however, a great party.

I think William DeLoss Love, a 19th century historian, sums it up best:

"It was not a thanksgiving at all, judged by their Puritan customs, which they kept in 1621; but as we look back upon it after nearly three centuries, it seems so wonderfully like the day we love that we claim it as the progenitor of our harvest feasts."


Wicked Yankee said...

That makes sense. The Puritans were not ones to have wild parties not sanctioned by the church.

I think they even outlawed Christmas because it wasn't mentioned in the bible.

December can be a gloomy month in New England. The clergy could have come up with something to celebrate I'm sure.

Peter Muise said...

Very true! Thanksgiving was one of the few holidays sanctioned by the Puritans.

Anonymous said...


I have really enjoyed reading through your blog this evening. Thank you.

However, there may be some events of which Mr. Baker is not aware.

Wikipedia seems to sum it up well. "In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII. . ." - 'Thanksgiving' article.

The first documented thanksgiving feasts in what was to become the USA "were conducted by Spaniards in the 16th century", then "the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607". - 'Thanksgiving (United States)' article.

Of course, more humble harvest feasts have been held the world around ever since farming developed.

I can't wait to read more of your posts. J

Peter Muise said...

Hi Anonymous! Thanks for the comment. I hope I'm not misrepresenting Baker's book, which I really recommend if you are curious about Thanksgiving. Just to clarify my post, I don't say the Puritans in England invented Thanksgiving days, just that they celebrated them. Baker's book does note (on page 19) that the English Anglican church observed these days as well.

The intro to Baker's book (page xii) references the Spanish Thanksgiving, but that celebration did not lead a national American holiday the way the Puritan Thanksgiving feasts did. Although Thanksgiving is now a national feast, the holiday literally retains a New England flavor with a menu featuring pumpkin pie, turkey, and cranberry sauce. There were earlier celebrations but they didn't spawn the modern holiday we celebrate.

Again, thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday during the Civil War. At that time they were'nt about to give a "southern" State (virginia) the honour of having the first in the country so Plymouth got it by default.