Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.
In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5.
According to some historians, the first celebration of Thanksgiving in North America occurred during the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage. Other researchers, however, state that “there is no compelling narrative of the origins of the Canadian Thanksgiving day.”
The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are also sometimes traced to the French settlers who came to New France in the 17th century, who celebrated their successful harvests. The French settlers in the area typically had feasts at the end of the harvest season and continued throughout the winter season, even sharing food with the indigenous peoples of the area.
As settlers arrived in Nova Scotia from New England after 1700, late autumn Thanksgiving celebrations became commonplace. New immigrants into the country—such as the Irish, Scottish, and Germans—also added their own traditions to the harvest celebrations. Most of the US aspects of Thanksgiving (such as the turkey) were incorporated when United Empire Loyalists began to flee from the United States during the American Revolution and settled in Canada.
In the United States
Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving”, including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. Now called Oktober Feest, Leiden’s autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims’ plans to emigrate to America. Later in Massachusetts, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned the colony’s thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God”.
Debate about the nation’s first celebrations
Other claims include an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598. Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in current Saint Augustine, Florida.
The earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada has been attributed to the earlier onset of winter in the North, thus ending the harvest season earlier. Thanksgiving in Canada did not have a fixed date until the late 19th century. Prior to Canadian Confederation, many of the individual colonial governors of the Canadian provinces had declared their own days of Thanksgiving. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving occurred on April 15, 1872, when the nation was celebrating the Prince of Wales’ recovery from a serious illness. By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day was normally celebrated on November 6. However, when World War I ended, the Armistice Day holiday was usually held during the same week. To prevent the two holidays from clashing with one another, in 1957 the Canadian Parliament proclaimed Thanksgiving to be observed on its present date on the second Monday of October.
Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with and eventually superseding the existing holiday of Evacuation Day (a day commemorating the British exit from the United States following the Revolutionary War). Modern Thanksgiving was first officially called for in all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, explicitly in celebration of the bounties that had continued to fall on the Union and for the military successes in the war. Because of the ongoing Civil War, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
On October 31, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation changing the holiday to the next to last Thursday in November, for business reasons. On December 26, 1941, he signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday.
Since 1971, when the American Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, the American observance of Columbus Day has coincided with the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.
In the Australian external territory of Norfolk Island, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the last Wednesday of November, similar to the pre–World War II American observance on the last Thursday of the month. This means the Norfolk Island observance is the day before or six days after the United States’ observance. The holiday was brought to the island by visiting American whaling ships.
In the West Indian island of Grenada, in the Caribbean, there is a national holiday known as Thanksgiving Day which is celebrated on October 25. Even though it bears the same name, and is celebrated at roughly the same time as the American and Canadian versions of Thanksgiving, this holiday is unrelated to either of those celebrations. Instead the holiday marks the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of the island in 1983, in response to the deposition and execution of the socialist Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop by a military government from within his own party.
In the West African country of Liberia, which began in 1820 with the colonization of freed African Americans (Americo-Liberians) from the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the first Thursday of November.
Besides this, Thanksgiving is observed by orthodox Protestant churches in The Netherlands on the first Wednesday in November (Dankdag [nl]). It is not a public holiday. Those who observe the day either only go to church in the evening or take the day off and go to church in the morning (and occasionally afternoon) too.
The Philippines, while it was an American colony in the first half of the 20th century, celebrated Thanksgiving as a special public holiday on the same day as the Americans. During the Japanese occupation during World War II, both the Americans and Filipinos celebrated Thanksgiving in secret. After Japanese withdrawal in 1945, the tradition continued until 1965. It was revived by President Ferdinand Marcos, but on every September 21, when martial law was imposed in the country. After Marcos’ ouster in 1986, the tradition was no longer continued.
The nation of Saint Lucia celebrates Thanksgiving on the first Monday in October.
Thanksgiving, currently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November by federal legislation in 1941, has been an annual tradition in the United States by presidential proclamation since 1863 and by state legislation since the Founding Fathers of the United States. Historically, Thanksgiving has traditionally been a celebration of the blessings of the year, including the harvest. What Americans call the “Holiday Season” generally begins with Thanksgiving.
The United States has observed German-American Day annually on October 6, within the vicinity of Erntedankfest, from 1883 until the early 1910s, then again from 1983 to the present day.
Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a national holiday in Japan. It takes place annually on November 23. The law establishing the holiday, which was adopted during the American occupation after World War II, cites it as an occasion for commemorating labor and production and giving one another thanks. It has roots in an ancient Shinto harvest ceremony (Niiname-sai (新嘗祭)).
Thai Pongal is the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival celebrated primarily in India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. In other parts of India, a similar harvest festival is celebrated as Makar Sankranti. It is a four-day festival, which according to the Gregorian calendar is normally celebrated from January 14 to January 16.[contradictory] This corresponds to the period from the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day of the Tamil month Thai. The festival is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for a successful harvest. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam. The origins of the Thai Pongal festival may date back more than 1000 years.
In Western Odisha, the day of Pousa Purnima on the saka calendar is commonly known as Pus Puni. It is marked as a day of thanksgiving to mother nature for a good harvest and is celebrated by making regional food items cultivated and harvested by farmers, all food items are given out and served so that we are being partakers of our plenty.
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Their leader, Governor William Bradford, issued a formal proclamation commanding the people to give thanks to God for having received divine protection during a terrible winter and for having received their first harvest. It was also new that the Pilgrims celebrated their thanksgiving by eating wild turkey (an indigenous bird) and venison.
- Jeremy Bangs. “Influences”. The Pilgrims’ Leiden. Archived from the original on January 13, 2012. Retrieved September 11, 2010.
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- “Vice President Boakai Joins Catholic Community in Bomi to Celebrate Thanksgiving Day”. The Executive Mansion. Republic of Liberia. November 5, 2010. Retrieved October 5, 2014.
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The Pilgrims arrived in Leiden in 1609, after fleeing religious persecution in England. Leiden welcomed them because it needed immigrants to help rebuild its textile industry, which had been devastated by a long revolt against Spain. Here, the Pilgrims were allowed to worship as they wanted, and they even published their arguments calling for the separation of church and state. Jeremy Bangs directs the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. He says the Pilgrims quickly adopted several Dutch customs, like civil marriage and Thanksgiving.
- “Thanksgiving in the Philippines”. Philippine Presidential Museum and Library. Retrieved 2015-11-27.
- “Saint Lucia’s List of Holidays for the Year 2015”(PDF). Stluciachamber.org. Archived from the original(PDF) on March 14, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
- “Thanksgiving Day”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 25,2011.
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- “Thai Pongal தை பொங்கல் Festival 2015 | University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka”. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
- “Washington Embassy celebrates Thai Pongal | Embassy of Sri Lanka – Washington DC”. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
- “Malaysian Prime Minister Greets Ethnic Tamils on Pongal”. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
- “Pongal – Harvest Festival”. pongal-festival.com.
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