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The Untold Stories Behind Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Traditions

Photo by Oleksandra Naumenko / Shutterstock

Thanksgiving is my very favorite day. It’s a family day that has been largely untouched by work, expectations or the commercialism of retailers getting in line for the next holiday. It’s an opportunity to gather together, and I adore the celebration of gratitude.

The origin of the Thanksgiving celebration resonates with me because one woman, an editor at that, and her single-handed letter-writing campaign turned a meaningful, yet inconsistent celebration into a national holiday with all the beautiful traditions of living well and feeling grateful every step of the way.

Letter writing

The story of the pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the nearby Wampanoag tribe with whom they formed a friendship, is the iconic inspiration for today’s Thanksgiving feast.

After the long, harsh winter of 1620 decimated almost half of the pilgrims, the Wampanoag tribe taught them how to fish, plant and hunt. By autumn of 1621 the pilgrims, now colonists, had grown and harvested enough food to feed the community through the upcoming winter. In celebration, the tribe joined the colonists for a feast that was said to have lasted three days in honor of their bounty, which likely included roast goose, corn, codfish and lobster—now known as the first Thanksgiving.

By 1777, in celebration of the victory over the British at Saratoga, the Continental Congress declared that all 13 colonies would celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving.

sarah jodepha hale

A passionate and influential magazine editor and the writer of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale, was determined to see Thanksgiving established as a national holiday, believing that such a day could unite a nation divided and threatened by civil war. Hale began a one-woman letter-writing campaign that lasted decades, urging politicians to establish a single annual day of Thanksgiving.

Her efforts were rewarded in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be a national Thanksgiving Day. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday one week earlier in the year, proclaiming the national day of celebration would be the third Thursday of November.


Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

An Iconic Tradition is Born

Two other Thanksgiving traditions that have become as regular as turkey and cranberry dressing, and date back further than you’d imagine, are football and the big Thanksgiving Day parade.

Known for its rain-or-shine commitment to running, the parade has been uninterrupted in its celebration since the beginning.

In 1924, to celebrate the opening of its new flagship store, Macy’s launched the annual citywide celebration with its first parade. Known for its rain-or-shine commitment to running, the parade has been uninterrupted in its celebration since the beginning. In 1927, the parade launched its first helium balloon, Felix the Cat, and when NBC gained television rights to the parade in 1952, every year it got bigger and more spectacular.

Football fans realized as early as 1876 that Thanksgiving day—a day off work—made for a great day for the game. The college football teams of Yale and Princeton University started the tradition of competing against each other on Thanksgiving day, and many teams—both college and professional—literally got into the game.

For the next century-and-a-half, and through mergers of football leagues, football has become a significant tradition. And since 1978, both the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys have locked in their Thanksgiving hosting of football games in their cities.

Thanksgiving Feast

I love the smell of celery and onions sautéed in butter as part of the preparation for the much-loved family dressing recipe, the sound of the parade as the turkey is prepped for the oven, the tangy citrus taste of homemade cranberry relish that I make every year for my family and friends, and the sound of football in the background between dinner and dessert. But most of all, this day off work and gathering together has won my heart as a cherished holiday that I enjoy more every year.

We have the early settlers to thank for setting the stage for making friends with those with a different perspective and for gathering to celebrate together. We have to thank one magazine editor for making her voice heard to create change for her country and permanently put this holiday in a fixed spot on the calendar.

Cheers to you, your families, and to Sarah for a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude and living beautifully.

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