When Was the First Thanksgiving?

Written by Eliana Riley
Updated: November 15, 2023
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Key Points

  • The first Thanksgiving was in November of 1621 by the pilgrims of Plymouth and the Wampanoag tribe.
  • President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
  • Some Thanksgiving foods include turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and stuffing.
  • Countries other than the United States may also observe a national day of thanks.
  • Chief Massasoit, the Wampanoag tribe, and Samoset were largely responsible for the success of the pilgrims in America.
can dogs eat turkey

Discover when the first Thanksgiving was and how it was celebrated.

©iStock.com/pondsaksit

What Events Led to the First Thanksgiving?

In September of 1620, the Mayflower left England, heading for the New World. The Mayflower was a ship carrying 102 people across the Atlantic Ocean. These people were called pilgrims because they were making a pilgrimage to the Americas in search of religious freedom. They were also referred to as separatists because they felt that their religious beliefs were being suppressed in Europe, so they decided to start a life for themselves outside of England’s religious jurisdiction.

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After 66 days aboard the Mayflower, the pilgrims finally reached the Americas. Although they had planned on arriving close to the Hudson River, they landed near Cape Cod. Eventually, they made their way across Massachusetts Bay to establish the town of Plymouth.

Unfortunately, the first few months in America were a nightmare for the pilgrims. The spread of disease, the harsh winter, and a lack of food and resources combined to create a substantial problem for these newcomers. Many pilgrims stayed on the Mayflower, as opposed to going on land, and close quarters resulted in unsanitary conditions that spread disease rapidly. In fact, only around half of the original travelers to the New World survived through the winter.

When spring came and all the pilgrims had left the Mayflower for land, a Native American greeted them in English. When the Native American saw the poor condition of the pilgrims, he brought a man from his tribe to them named Squanto. An English sailor had kidnapped Squanto beforehand, and when Squanto returned to his tribe in the Americas, he spoke English well enough to communicate with other English speakers.

As a result, Squanto taught the pilgrims how to farm the land and what crops to plant for harvesting. Squanto’s help allowed the pilgrims to survive in the Americas and create a home for themselves. The pilgrims and the neighboring Wampanoag tribe retained an amicable relationship, which led to the first Thanksgiving.

Pilgrims departing on Mayflower

The Pilgrims left for America on the Mayflower with 102 passengers in 1620.

©&#169 Getty Images/PHOTOS.com>> via Getty Images

When Was the First Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving occurred in November 1621 following a fruitful corn harvest by the pilgrims. In response, Governor William Bradford determined that the pilgrims should celebrate their success with a feast. The pilgrims invited the Wampanoag tribe and their chief, Massasoit, to the feast as well.

The feast was not originally called Thanksgiving. In fact, experts are unsure of the feast’s original name and what foods pilgrims and Native Americans served at the feast. What is known is that the celebratory feast lasted for three days. Another detail about the first Thanksgiving is that the feast likely featured Native American dishes as opposed to European ones. Additionally, it’s unlikely that the pilgrims enjoyed desserts during the first Thanksgiving, as their sugar supply had decreased significantly by November 1621.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe

Governor William Bradford organized the first Thanksgiving in November 1621.

©Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – License

When Did Thanksgiving Become a Tradition and National Holiday?

Thanksgiving was celebrated for the second time in 1623. This Thanksgiving celebration recognized the end of a drought that had plagued the pilgrims throughout their planting and harvesting season. Before this second celebration, though, Governor Bradford mandated a religious fast among the pilgrims. After this fast, the pilgrims could celebrate with a feast. The second Thanksgiving influenced other settlements in New England to fast and feast as a way of giving thanks, too. Eventually, this practice began to occur regularly, around once a year.

Over time, the American colonies continued celebrating days of thanks, even during the Revolutionary War. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanks that celebrated the birth of the United States and the end of the Revolutionary War. Succeeding presidents issued days of thanks throughout their terms, too. New York became the first state to declare an annual Thanksgiving holiday in 1817.

Thanksgiving became an official national holiday in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln declared the new holiday after editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned him to make Thanksgiving a national and annual holiday. While the Civil War was raging on, President Lincoln felt it appropriate to give thanks and pay homage to the lives lost in the conflict. He scheduled the holiday for the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later changed the holiday to occur on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Close up of stuffed turkey during Thanksgiving meal with family toasting in the background.

Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

©Drazen Zigic/iStock via Getty Images

How Do Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in various ways. For one, most Americans gather with family members or close friends for Thanksgiving dinner. Like the attendees of the first Thanksgiving, Americans indulge in a massive feast. Some Thanksgiving activities may include watching a football game or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

What Do Americans Eat on Thanksgiving?

On Thanksgiving, Americans eat a diverse assortment of food, and they eat a lot of it. Turkey usually makes up the main dish of the Thanksgiving meal, but some people choose to replace turkey with ham as the entrée. Sides include sweet potatoes, casseroles, green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, stuffing, and vegetables.

Perhaps the best part of Thanksgiving dinner is the delicious pies. Pumpkin pie is a familiar seasonal favorite, but other pies served may include chocolate, pecan, apple, or cherry pie. While these foods are traditional Thanksgiving dishes, anyone can serve anything on Thanksgiving. Spending time with friends and family on the holiday is more important than any recipe served.

Sweet Homemade Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie Ready to Eat

American households typically serve pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.

©Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com

Do Other Countries Celebrate Thanksgiving?

The United States isn’t the only country that celebrates Thanksgiving. However, Thanksgiving in other countries isn’t necessarily called Thanksgiving, and these celebrations take different forms and hold different meanings among cultures. For instance, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second October of every year. Canada’s Thanksgiving is older than that of the U.S. by more than 40 years; it was the first Thanksgiving ever celebrated in North America in 1578.

In Japan, Kinro Kansha no Hi is a type of Thanksgiving Day celebrated annually on November 23rd. Japan’s holiday developed from an ancient festival called Niinamesai. By 1948, Japan began observing Thanksgiving as a celebration of workers’ rights. Thus, Japan’s Thanksgiving serves as a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day from an American understanding. Unlike the United States, families in Japan do not host a Thanksgiving feast. Rather, certain workers’ unions and other organizations will hold events that recognize the importance of hard work.

Germany celebrates a festival of thanks called Erntedankfest on the first Sunday of October. Erntedankfest may be observed in a religious or non-religious context. Rural areas often celebrate the fall harvest during Erntedankfest. On the other hand, churches throughout Germany celebrate the festival by giving thanks for their church members and their members’ contributions.

In addition, Puerto Rico also celebrates Thanksgiving Day, and this territory’s celebration largely mirrors that of the United States. Since Puerto Rico is considered a U.S. territory, the country often observes many U.S. holidays and traditions. Puerto Ricans may eat the same foods as Americans on the holiday, but they may also incorporate their own traditional flavors into Thanksgiving dinners, such as pork. Puerto Rico also celebrates Black Friday, a huge sale event across all stores in the United States. This craze of shopping and consumerism occurs the Friday after Thanksgiving.

typical german thanksgiving crown

The Thanksgiving crown is displayed during Erntedankfest in Germany.

©FooTToo/iStock via Getty Images

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Eliana Riley is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on geography, travel, and landmarks. Eliana is a second-year student at Miami University majoring in English Education and Spanish. A resident of Tennessee and Ohio, Eliana enjoys traveling to national and state parks, hiking, kayaking, and camping.

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