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A Little Thanksgiving History

Thanksgiving is time when the family gathers round, tables groan under the weight of wonderful food, and we ponder all that we have to be thankful for this year. But how much do we really know about the history of the holiday itself?


We might know something about the pilgrims at Plymouth and how they gathered in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians to share an autumn feast in celebration of the harvest. But did you know that there is actually some debate among scholars as to whether this was in fact the “first Thanksgiving”?


Other, earlier celebrations in the New World have been documented by historians such as in 1565 the Spanish explorer Pedro Menédez de Avilé invited members of the Timucua tribe to a dinner in St Augustine in what is now Florida to celebrate his crew’s safe arrival. Then there is the proclamation read by the British on December 4, 1619 in Virginia designating that day as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” And of course, you can find celebrations of the harvest spanning many ancient cultures throughout history.


But what about that feast in November 1621, what was on the menu? Did they have stuffing? Not exactly, at least not the way we think of stuffing today. Although – according to Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow – a “fowling” mission was undertaken, and we can assume there were drumsticks, they may have been pheasant or goose more so than turkey. And it wasn’t until about 50 years later that cranberry sauce was added to the table. Also, the Wampanoag brought deer to that gathering. No ovens were handy and by this time little sugar would have remained in the Pilgrims’ supplies so no pumpkin pie would have been on hand. There may have been swan, lobster or even seal on the menu as well but we will never know for certain. We do know that the celebration lasted three days as proclaimed by Governor William Bradford.  


When did Thanksgiving become an official holiday? During the American Revolution the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States calling for Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion of the War of Independence and ratification of the Constitution. New York was one of the first states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Other states followed suit but the dates varied state to state.


A truly national holiday didn’t exist until 1863, at the height of the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Magazine editor Sarah Jospeha Hale had been pestering the government and campaigning for 36 years to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday and finally in Abraham Lincoln she found a president who listened. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week in an attempt to boost retail sales during the Great Depression. Finally though, in 1941 he signed a bill formally making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.


Today 90 percent of Americans have turkey on their Thanksgiving table according to the National Turkey Federation with the average weight of the bird being 15 pounds and many cooks calling Butterball’s turkey hotline with cooking questions ranging from brining to deep frying to how long it takes to thaw out a frozen bird and what to do if you’ve followed all the directions but that darned little “ready” button hasn’t popped up and the bird is still a bit frozen on the inside. Some 2 to 3 million people will line the streets of New York to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, which began in 1924, while even more will tune in at home. There will be football and napping in the recliner, stuffed from the bounty of the day.


However you celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from Hilton Head Lakes.


Hilton Head Lakes is a debt free community in South Carolina, and one of the best places to retire. It’s the perfect balance between gated community and world-class resort. With the addition of Realstar Builders, we’re creating homes that are built to last. Schedule a Discovery Visit today and experience Hilton Head Lakes for yourself.



National Turkey Federation


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