How Thanksgiving Works

Thanksgiving Day

Plimoth Plantation Plimoth Plantation
'Servant Dorothy,' played by Kathleen Wall, bastes a goose while 'Mistress Mary Brewster,' played by Lisa Walbridge, plucks the feathers from a duck in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast at Plimoth Plantation Pam Berry/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

­It's uncl­ear whether the Pilgrims themselves called that first feast a thanksgiving celebration, but they were certainly celebrating the abundance of food and the peace with their American Indian neighbors.­

­It wasn't until several years later, after enduring a monthslong drought, that Thanksgiving was celebrated in earnest. In response to the hot, dry summer months, the governor called for a fast. Soon afterward, rain revived the shriveled crops, and the Puritans celebrated.

The custom of marking good fortune with a day of gratitude quickly caught on throughout New England. In the early days of the United States, the new nation's leaders began proclaiming country-wide thanksgiving celebrations. In the American Revolution, for example, the Continental Congress called for a day of thanksgiving to mark the U.S. victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Then in 1789, President George Washington called for a day of thanksgiving in recognition of the U.S. Constitution's ratification [source: Nelte].

In 1817, New York state officially adopted a yearly Thanksgiving day, and some other states followed suit. Most celebrated the day in November, and a few observed it in December. In the mid-1800s, a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale mounted a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln did just that, proclaiming that Thanksgiving would be the last day in November. In this case, Lincoln was mainly out to boost the Union army's morale.

­After the Civil War, Congress made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Initially, many Southerners saw this as the Northerners forcing their particular traditions on the whole country. But eventually, the holiday caught on everywhere.

­In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up one week, to appease businesses that wanted a longer Christmas shopping season. Much of the nation balked at the change, and many kept on celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday, as before. Some opponents even called Roosevelt's new Thanksgiving day "Franksgiving" [source: Meeks]. In 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill to officially make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. This means Thanksgiving is the last Thursday of the month some years and the second to last in other years.

In the next section, we'll look at why everyone's talking turkey on Thanksgiving.