The Strange and Twisted History of Thanksgiving

November 21, 2018

Here are some facts about Thanksgiving that are darker than the turkey’s dark meat, and more alarming than your aunt’s green gelatin casserole. 

Be Glad You’re Eating Turkey 

We often think of the Pilgrims as the inventors of Thanksgiving. And while they certainly popularized the idea with a feast with Native Americans in 1621 in what’s now Massachusetts, they weren’t the first European settlers to count their blessings with a large harvest meal. Beginning in the 1610s, colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, had their own celebrations that combined prayer and food. They were very thankful that year, seeing as how the winter of 1609 had been so harsh, and the colonists had been so unprepared, that they had to resort to eating horses, their shoes, rats…and other colonists that had already died.

Heading South

Our modern celebration of Thanksgiving developed as a regional holiday in New England (because of the history of the Pilgrims there). It spread throughout the nation by the 1850s, but when the Civil War seemed inevitable by the 1860s, some of the most staunchly pro-slavery states in the South refused to celebrate it. Why? Because it was a distinctly “Northern” holiday. Part of the reason why President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863 was an attempt to unite the fractured nation.

Same Turkey, Different Day

When Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving an official thing, he set it to occur on the fourth Thursday of November. But then in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt decided to change the day — he moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November. Why? Like a lot of his Depression-era policies, it was an attempt to jump-start the economy. An extra week between Thanksgiving and Christmas made the holiday shopping season that much longer. However, for two years, 16 states refused to change and held Thanksgiving on the old date, with some public officials derisively labeling the newer, earlier date “Franksgiving” after the president.