The History of the Americans

The History of the Americans

Sidebar: Notes on Thanksgiving

November 25, 2021

This November, it has been 400 years since the traditional First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony – Patuxet in 1621. But the history of that collaborative feast of the English and the Wampanoag Indians was lost for more than 200 years. For most of that time, Americans celebrated “thanksgiving” all over the country at different days in the autumn, decreed by local and state governments, without knowing its origin story. This episode explores the conversion of thanksgiving from a local custom to a revered national holiday. Along the way, we learn about Sarah Josepha Hale, the remarkable woman to whom Americans owe the greatest debt for the holiday they will celebrate today.

There were political objections to Thanksgiving, too, rooted in exactly the debates we have today after the proper role of the federal government, and how precisely to separate church and state.

Finally, we learn about the central role of football on Thanksgiving, dating from Thanksgiving of 1873, only four years after the first college football game. By 1893, Americans were playing thousands of games of football across the country on Thanksgiving Day. Oh, and we should all be grateful that President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t screw it all up, which he very nearly did.

Selected references for this episode

Melanie Kirkpatrick, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

Melanie Kirkpatrick, “Don’t Let Ideologues Steal Thanksgiving”

“How the Great Colchester Molasses Shortage Nearly Ruined Thanksgiving”

All the Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations 1789-2018 (pdf)

The West Wing, “I get to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving”