Although modern Thanksgiving is a national holiday which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November, the first Thanksgiving most likely happened between September and November 1621. The celebration took place over three days and included many recreational activities. Very little is actually known about the first Thanksgiving as there were only two firsthand accounts of the event ever written. William Bradford, governor of the first colony, and Edward Winslow wrote about the celebration in their journals.
Celebrating a fall harvest was an English tradition at that time and after surviving the first winter, the colonists had much to celebrate. Only 53 of the original settlers survived the long journey on the Mayflower and the harsh first winter. Disease and starvation struck down close to half of the 102 colonists who set out for the new world. The pilgrims made it through the first winter with the help of the Wampanoag. Due to their help the settlers had a hearty supply of food to sustain them through the next winter.
The feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in 1621 was never actually called Thanksgiving. It was simply a harvest celebration. In July of 1623 the Pilgrims did hold a day they called Thanksgiving, but it had nothing to do with the fall harvest. It was a day of prayer and fasting. Over the years the two events became intertwined and by the late 1600’s many individual colonies and settlements began holding “Thanksgiving” feasts during the autumn months.
The Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777. In 1789 George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. It didn’t become a National Holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that would make Thanksgiving a national holiday. America was in the middle of its bloody civil war and Lincoln believed it would unify the deeply divided nation.
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