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a. an expression of thanks to God
b. a public act of religious observance or a celebration in acknowledgment of divine favours
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


Type of Holiday: Historic, National
Date of Observation: Fourth Thursday in November (United States); second Monday in October (Canada)
Where Celebrated: Canada, United States
Symbols and Customs: Corn Dolly, Cornucopia, Indian Corn, Parades, Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, Turkey
Colors: The colors of the autumn harvest-orange, brown, and gold-can be seen in Thanksgiving decorations and table settings. Because it is not strictly a religious festival, there are no liturgical colors associated with the day.
Related Holidays: Harvest Home Festival, Lammas, Sukkot, Wampanoag Powwow


Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States. National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to warrant inclusion in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor a person or event that has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry.

In the United States, patiotism and identity were nurtured from the beginning of the nation by the very act of celebrating new events in holidays like the Fourth of July, battle anniversaries, and other notable occasions. This was even more important in the country's early years because the nation was composed of people from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. The invention of traditions and the marking of important occasions in the life of the new nation were crucial in creating a shared bond of tradition and a sense of common belonging to a relatively new homeland through the shared experience of celebrating common holidays. As more and diverse peoples migrated to the United States, it became even more important to celebrate significant annual anniversaries, and Thanksgiving soon became one of the nation's most important shared celebrations.

The autumn harvest has always been a cause for celebration. The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, their corn goddess, at the annual festival known as the THESMOPHORIA in October, when the seeds for the next year's crop were about to be planted. The Romans had their Cerealia, held each year on October 4 in honor of the grain goddess, Ceres. They offered her the first fruits of the harvest and paraded through the field, participating in games and sports and sharing a huge thanksgiving feast. The Jews observed SUKKOT, or the Feast of Tabernacles, in the autumn as well. They hung the walls of the small huts built for this festival with apples, grapes, corn, pomegranates, and other fruits and vegetables. Both the North American and South American Indians celebrated the harvest as well. All of these early thanksgiving ceremonies were social as well as religious occasions, providing those whose work in the fields was completed with an opportunity to sing, dance, feast, and play games.

In America, there were at least two thanksgiving celebrations before the one that took place at Plymouth in 1621. In 1607, a group of English settlers led by Captain George Popham met with a group of Abnaki Indians near the mouth of the Kennebec River to share a harvest feast and prayer meeting. On December 14, 1619, there was a celebration in Virginia led by Captain John Woodleaf and thirty-nine colonists who had traveled up the James River from Jamestown to a place called Berkeley Hundred, where they went ashore and gave thanks.

Most Americans, however, think of the first "official" Thanksgiving as being the one that took place at Plymouth Colony in October 1621, a year after the PILGRIMS first landed on the New England coast (see PLYMOUTH ROCK ). They were joined in their three-day feast by Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, and about ninety of his fellow tribesmen. Only fifty of the original 100 Pilgrims had survived the first winter, and those who did owed their survival to the Indians. The feast they shared with them in 1621 was primarily a harvest celebration rather than a religious one (see WAMPANOAG POWWOW).

During the next several years, no one specific day was set aside in the American colonies for giving thanks. A day would be named when there was a special reason to be thankful, such as a bumper crop or escape from an epidemic. It was largely due to the efforts of a women's magazine editor named Sarah Hale that Thanksgiving came to be a national holiday. She petitioned presidents and government officials for more than twenty years to establish a national day of thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week to stimulate the economy by allowing more time for CHRISTMAS shopping. But the tradition was already so well established that the change created an uproar. Finally, Congress ruled in 1941 that the fourth Thursday in November would be the legal federal holiday. Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday in October.

The Pilgrims' Thanksgiving can be traced back to the English HARVEST HOME FESTIVAL and Dutch thanksgiving traditions, which some Pilgrims learned about during the ten years they spent in the city of Leyden before coming to America. Today, Thanksgiving is a time for family reunions, most of which center around the preparation of an elaborate meal featuring TURKEY and a dozen or so accompanying dishes. Although some people go to special church services on Thanksgiving Day, far more line the streets to watch PARADES or sit in front of the television watching football games. In many American cities and towns, the day after Thanksgiving marks the official start of the CHRISTMAS shopping season.


Corn Dolly

Many rituals were associated with the cutting of the last sheaf of corn at the harvest. At one time, people believed that the corn spirit or corn goddess ran from plant to plant, just ahead of the advancing sickles. Sometimes farmers "caught" the corn spirit by making the last sheaf into a doll, who was believed to possess magical powers. The corn doll was then decorated with ribbons or crowned with a wreath of flowers and hung up on the farmhouse wall until it was time to plow for the next year's crops. Then the farmer's wife would cut the doll into pieces and bring it to the fields as food for the horses; or she would burn it, and the farmer would plow the ashes back into the earth as a way of ensuring a plentiful harvest. In some places, the corn doll would be thrown into a river in the hope that it would guarantee sufficient rainfall.

At the traditional English festival known as Harvest Home, the last of the corn was piled on a cart decorated with flowers, ribbons, and green branches. A "lord" and "lady" of the harvest were chosen to ride in the cart, and as it passed, people hiding in the bushes would throw buckets of water at it-another rain charm.

In America today, small dolls made from corn husks are a popular household decoration at Thanksgiving.


Also known as the "horn of plenty," the cornucopia is not only a harvest symbol but a symbol of early America, with its seemingly endless supply of game and produce. In ancient Rome, a goat's horn overflowing with fruit and other foods was an attribute of both Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Fortuna, the goddess of fortune. In Greece, it was associated with Amalthea, a nymph in the form of a goat who nursed the infant Zeus in a cave on the island of Crete. According to legend, Amalthea broke off one of her horns and, filling it with fruits and flowers, gave it to Zeus. To show his gratitude, Zeus set the goat's image in the sky as the constellation Capricorn. In another version of the myth, the grateful young Zeus breaks off a goat's horn and gives it to Amalthea, his foster mother, telling her it will supply her with whatever she needs.

Cornucopia-from the Latin cornu copiae, meaning "horn of plenty"-is a longstanding symbol of fruitfulness and abundance. Americans often place cornucopia baskets on their Thanksgiving tables to symbolize their gratitude for the feast they are about to share.

Indian Corn

The Pilgrims didn't know about corn when they first arrived in America, but the Indians showed them how to plant the kernels and fertilize the mounds with fish. Because they didn't want the Indians to know how many of the original settlers had died that first winter, the Pilgrims planted corn over the graves to disguise them. The ears of maize or Indian corn, as it was known, were small and knobby, with red, yellow, blue, green, and blackish kernels. Sometimes they were roasted and eaten, but more often they were dried and pounded into cornmeal for cornbread and cornmeal mush.

While it is not part of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, Indian corn is a favorite household decoration at this time of year. Although corn is an ancient symbol of fertility, prosperity, and growth, the irregularly shaped and colored Indian corn is a more recent American symbol of the harvest.


In ancient Greece and Rome, harvest celebrations often included farm wagons decorated with sheaves of grain. Today, many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with parades featuring floats reminiscent of these early harvest wagons. In fact, some scholars see the harvest queens who ride in modern-day Thanksgiving parades as the descendants of the pagan corn goddesses.

The oldest Thanksgiving Day parade, which dates back to 1920, is the one held by Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia. Macy's department store in New York held its first parade in 1924. Today the Macy's parade features characters from story books, movies, television, and toyland. In recent years, it has attracted more than three million spectators, while another sixty million Americans have watched it on television. In Hollywood, television and movie stars parade through the streets on floats.


Originally the Pilgrims were called Puritans because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England, which they felt was too concerned with ritual and with telling people what to believe. They met secretly in homes to study the Bible and listen to sermons. Those who were prepared to leave the Church of England and set up their own church-without bishops, altars, candles, incense, or organ music- were known as Separatists. Because the English church and government were one and the same in the 1600s, separating from the church was considered an act of treason. One group of Separatists, under the leadership of William Brewster, decided to move to Holland. They lived in Leyden for ten years, but worried about their children forgetting English language and customs. Fifty or sixty of these, along with other passengers who had their own reasons for wanting to leave-102 in all-decided to make the journey to the New World on board the Mayflower. Among the best-known Pilgrims are Miles Standish and John Alden, who were not Separatists at all but who became famous as characters in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1858 poem, "The Courtship of Miles Standish."

The Pilgrims as seen today-on Thanksgiving posters, greeting cards, paper tablecloths and napkins, and in the form of candles or figurines-wear gray, black, or dun-colored clothing with white collars and cuffs. They have tall black hats with broad brims and a silver buckle in front; their shoes have silver buckles as well. The women and girls usually wear long dresses in drab colors with white aprons and caps. In reality, however, Pilgrim women often wore red, purple, bright blue, or green dresses colored with vegetable dyes. The ornamental buckles seen on the Pilgrims' hats and shoes weren't introduced until later in the seventeenth century.

The figures of Pilgrims seen at Thanksgiving today are a symbol of the bravery and determination of America's earliest settlers. They are often portrayed as malefemale couples because they represent the "parents" of the American people.

Plymouth Rock

Perhaps the most famous landmark in America today is the granite boulder on which the Pilgrims first stepped when they came ashore at Plymouth, Massachusetts. But until just before the American Revolution, it was simply another rock. During the next century it was moved first to Plymouth's town square, then to a local museum known as Pilgrim Hall. Finally it was brought back to the waterfront and placed under a stone canopy with a box believed to contain Pilgrim bones. Eventually, to prevent souvenir-hunters from chipping off pieces, the rock was placed in a pit surrounded by an iron railing, with a portico overhead to shelter visitors from the weather.

Whether or not the Pilgrims actually stepped ashore on this rock is not known with any certainty. Apparently there was a huge boulder about forty feet from shore along the sandy coast of Massachusetts in 1620. But since there is no documentation about exactly where the Pilgrims landed, there is no way of knowing whether this rock provided them with a stepping-stone. Some historians have theorized that the Pilgrims used the rock as a landmark to help guide them into the harbor.

Plymouth Rock has long symbolized America's freedom. During the Revolutionary War, the residents of Plymouth took it as a good omen rather than a coincidence when the rock split in two while being pried from its bed for use as a pedestal for a liberty pole: Shortly after, the colonies officially split from England. The two halves were eventually reunited under a protective canopy at the foot of Coles Hill, where it now sits. Although originally estimated to have measured twelve feet in diameter and to have weighed seven or eight tons, over the years the rock has been whittled down considerably by souvenir-hunters and the difficulties of moving it.


There is no record of what was eaten at the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving feast. The Indians who had been sent out to hunt probably returned with wild geese and ducks, but there is no way of knowing whether they brought back a turkey-a large, stately bird with greenish-bronze feathers that was native to North America. Because of their size (twenty to thirty pounds) and because they were relatively easy to catch, however, wild turkeys quickly became an important source of food for the early American settlers.

Some say the turkey was named by the late sixteenth-century European explorers, who confused it with the European turkey cock, a completely different bird. Others claim that the word comes from the Hebrew tukki, meaning "big bird," which is what the doctor on Columbus's ship shouted when he saw one for the first time. In any case, the turkey did not become an American Thanksgiving tradition until the 1860s. After World War II, an aggressive marketing campaign by the poultry industry and the development of larger, hybrid turkeys combined to make the stuffed bird a symbol of American abundance and the traditional main course at Thanksgiving dinner.

The custom of snapping the turkey's wishbone, bringing luck to the person who gets the larger half, can be traced back to the Romans. It was certainly a well-established tradition in England by the time the Pilgrims brought it to America. Some word historians believe that the bone-snapping custom gave rise to the popular expression, "to get a lucky break."

Today, Americans eat more than 690 million pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving, accompanied by such traditional American dishes as cranberries, squash, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and stuffing (which the Pilgrims referred to as "pudding in the belly"). After the United States won its independence, Congress debated the choice of a national bird. Benjamin Franklin thought the bald eagle was a bird of "bad moral character" and advocated the turkey as a "true, original Native of North America."


Barth, Edna. Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of the Thanksgiving Sym- bols. New York: Seabury Press, 1975. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Graham-Barber, Lynda. Gobble!: The Complete Book of Thanksgiving Words. New York: Bradbury Press, 1991. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Henderson, Helene. Patriotic Holidays of the United States. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2006. Penner, Lucille Recht. The Thanksgiving Book. New York: Hastings House, 1986. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


The History Channel
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


Fourth Thursday in November (U.S.); second Monday in October (Canada)
The Pilgrim settlers of New England were not the first to set aside a day for expressing their gratitude to God for the harvest. The Greeks and the Romans paid tribute to their agricultural goddesses, the Anglo-Saxons celebrated Lammas and Harvest Home Festival, and the Jews have their eight-day Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles. The first American Thanksgiving was entirely religious, and took place on December 4, 1619, when a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation on the James River. Their charter decreed that their day of arrival be celebrated yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.
But most Americans think of the first "official" Thanksgiving as being the one that took place at Plymouth Colony in October 1621, a year after the Pilgrims first landed on the New England coast. They were joined in their three-day feast by Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, and about 90 of his fellow tribesmen.
The Episcopal Church and many states declared Thanksgiving holidays, but it wasn't until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day to give thanks. Each year thereafter, for 75 years, the president proclaimed the same day to be celebrated. In 1939, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it one week earlier to allow more time for Christmas shopping. Finally, Congress ruled that the fourth Thursday of November would be the legal federal holiday of Thanksgiving after 1941. Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.
Today Thanksgiving is a time for family reunions and traditions, most of which center around the preparation of an elaborate meal featuring turkey and a dozen or so accompanying dishes. Although some people go to special church services on Thanksgiving day, far more line the streets of Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York City, where huge parades are held. In many places Santa Claus arrives in town on this day, and the widespread sales that begin in department stores the next day mark the start of the Christmas shopping season.
See also Pilgrim Thanksgiving Day; Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving
Library of Congress
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Canadian Heritage
25 Eddy St.
Gatineau, QC K1A 0M5 Canada
AmerBkDays-2000, pp. 462, 794
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 614
BkFest-1937, pp. 13, 19
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 118, 124
BkHolWrld-1986, Nov 27
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 300
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 443
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 449
GdUSFest-1984, p. 89
HolSymbols-2009, p. 951
OxYear-1999, p. 654
PatHols-2006, p. 237
RelHolCal-2004, p. 106
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


annual U.S. holiday celebrating harvest and yearly blessings; originated with Pilgrims (1621). [Am. Culture: EB, IX: 922]
See: America


national holiday with luxurious dinner as chief ritual. [Am. Pop. Culture: Misc.]
See: Feast
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.