A Guide to Thanksgiving: Tradition, History, and Law

Every November, people all over the United States celebrate an annual holiday called Thanksgiving. To a foreigner’s eyes, the traditions that accompany Thanksgiving might seem bizarre, but they are deeply entrenched in American history, culture, and even law. Dive into this American tradition to learn about the relationship between pilgrims and Native American Indians, what Black Friday is, which U.S. Presidents made Thanksgiving part of federal law, and why Americans eat so much turkey.

What is Thanksgiving?

The origins of Thanksgiving are thought to trace back to the time of the pilgrims. When the first settlers came over from Europe, they found that life across the Atlantic Ocean was much more difficult than they bargained for. The vast, untamed frontier of North America brought bitter cold, unknown wilderness, and harsh diseases. With the help of Native American Indian Wampanoag tribe, the pilgrims learned how to safely and fruitfully harvest crops, fish, pick non-poisonous berries, and otherwise live off the land. In 1621, Governor William Bradshaw organized a feast to thank the Native American Indians for their generosity and kindness, without which the pilgrims’ survival may not have been certain.

Thanksgiving as an American Tradition

In the tradition of the first Thanksgiving, the purpose of the Thanksgiving holiday has become to, as the name of the holiday suggests, give thanks and express gratitude for the blessings in one’s life. People often travel significant distances in order to enjoy this special time in the company of family and friends. The most common way in which Americans celebrate Thanksgiving is by cooking an elaborate dinner feast.

Because Thanksgiving takes place in the autumn season, crops which are usually part of the fall harvest such as pumpkin, squash, corn, and potatoes all typically have a place in the holiday feast. But the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast is almost always turkey, a large bird which is indigenous to America. The turkey is cooked and served with side dishes including the vegetables mentioned above, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, and the meal is topped off with desserts such as pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving has also given rise to other cultural traditions, which have become inextricable parts of the holiday celebrations for many. After stuffing themselves to the brim with turkey, many people endure the subsequent food coma by watching American football (not soccer!). Prominent retail store Macy’s organizes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a procession of decorative and seasonal floats which takes place in New York City on Thanksgiving morning each year. And in the tradition of good old-fashioned American capitalism, the day after Thanksgiving, nicknamed Black Friday, has become notorious as a day on which retail stores open early and offer huge sales to capitalize on the upcoming Christmas shopping season. The frenzy that accompanies Black Friday has, on occasion, reached such a fever pitch that deaths have even occurred in the past and some states, particularly Massachusetts, have implemented laws to regulate what times stores can open and how long employees can work after Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Around the World

Though Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday (it takes place in both the U.S. and Canada, which celebrates Thanksgiving in October), people in countries all around the world follow the model of fall celebrations of the harvest. China celebrates the “Chung Chiu” Moon Festival with mooncakes on the eighth lunar cycle’s 15th day, while in Vietnam, this same day is celebrated (also with mooncakes) as the Tet-Trung-Thu Children’s Festival. In South India, people worship Indra, the god of rain, and Surya Pongal, the Sun God, to pray for a successful fall harvest in the Pongal festival. The English make corn dolls as part of Saxon tradition, and yams accompany ceremonies for the dead and prayers to spirits in the Homowo Yam Festival in Ghana. People feast on turkey and large meals on the Day of Thanksgivings in Brazil, and chickens replace turkey with a sermon and succeeding procession presenting a harvest crown to Ernteknigin, the harvest queen, in Erntedankfest in Germany.

Thanksgiving in U.S. Law

Thanksgiving is more than a cultural tradition; it is a federal holiday decreed by law. In fact, the legal history of Thanksgiving reads like a “Who’s Who” of American Presidents. Three of the most prominent Presidents in U.S. history, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, all contributed to cementing Thanksgiving’s place in federal law. Thanksgiving first made an appearance in the annals of the law on September 28, 1789, when the first Federal Congress passed a resolution for President George Washington to declare a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin”. Washington did so, and Thursday, November 26 became that day under his proclamation. This was the first time Thanksgiving was declared and celebrated in an official capacity since the passage of the Constitution.

The Thanksgiving Proclamation continued under succeeding Presidents, but was not made an official set date until Abraham Lincoln, in his 1863 Proclamation, decided that the last Thursday in the month of November would always be Thanksgiving Day. However, in 1939, Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday of the month, which concerned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Out of fear that a later Thanksgiving date would make the Christmas shopping season shorter (this was the beginning of the retail frenzy known as Black Friday) and hurt the economy, which was on its way back up after the Great Depression, Roosevelt yet again moved Thanksgiving to be the second to last Thursday of November. However, Roosevelt’s decision led to a split where 32 states followed his Presidential Proclamation and celebrated on the second to last Thursday of November, while 16 states rejected the Proclamation and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month. After two years of split Thanksgivings, the holiday was finally united on October 6, 1941, with a joint resolution passed by Congress and the House and signed into being on December 26, 1941, to be the fourth Thursday of November.