Thanksgiving – its history and celebrations

By: Arindam Bose

Introduction to Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day is a day set aside to give thanks, traditionally to God, when the harvest season comes to an end. It is celebrated in different ways and at different times in different parts of the world. While Thanksgiving is a holiday in the United States and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, it is celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. It is, however, not a major event in the United Kingdom where it is also known as the Harvest festival. On this day, family and friends assemble for a feast to celebrate their good fortune, relax and relish each other’s company. Turkey is the main item in the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The day also marks the unofficial beginning of the winter holiday season.


Thanksgiving is one of the oldest festivals celebrated throughout history. We have learnt of ancient tribes making offerings and preparing feasts to thank their gods and seek their favor. In ancient times, the Greeks, the Romans and the Jews too had similar festivals to appease their gods and goddesses of harvest. It is believed that in the United States, Thanksgiving was originally a harvest festival held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621. During the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims held a three-day feast in celebration of their bountiful harvest following their arrival in North America.

Although George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, president Thomas Jefferson later dismissed the idea of having a national holiday of Thanksgiving. However, in 1863, president Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. Finally, in November 1941, Thanksgiving was specifically sanctioned by a joint resolution of Congress as the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving meal

Things have changed a lot since the first Pilgrim harvest feast of 1621. Items in the first Thanksgiving meal were believed to be wheat, corn, barley, peas, wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans or wild turkey), fish (bass and cod) and five deer brought by the Native Americans. This tradition continues even today in the form of the Thanksgiving dinner, in which people eat turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn in some form or other and different vegetables and side dishes. The dessert is usually pumpkin pie or pecan pie.

Thanksgiving in different parts of the world

Although the dates of celebration are different, Thanksgiving in Canada is much the same as it is in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Harvest festival is celebrated in late September or October and special services of Thanksgiving are organized at local churches to honor the day. Jewish people throughout the world celebrate Sukkot, a festival of thanksgiving that lasts nine days. The Chinese observe thanksgiving as The Festival of the Autumn Moon, or Zhong Qui held on the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. In the state of Kerala in India, the harvest festival is called the Onam. In Lithuania, the thanksgiving tradition involves the creation of a boba (meaning old woman) from the last sheaf of grain at harvest time. It is believed that keeping the boba until spring keeps the spirit of the crop alive until replanting begins the next year.

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