Thanksgiving: the English Roots of America's Great Holiday

The customs and traditions of England, from Anglo-Saxon harvest festivals to the thanksgiving celebrations of the Reformation provide the origins of the quintessential American celebration

By Mark Bailey
Published 23 Nov 2017, 10:15 GMT
Photograph by Corina Daniela Obertas / Alamy Stock Photo

With 46 million turkeys devoured for dinner, American football triple-headers screened on TV, and extravagant parades attended by millions, Thanksgiving Day is one of the most iconic American public holidays. In Britain, however, the event is typically met with frowns of confusion, as a seemingly premature Christmas-style celebration which is strangely familiar yet ultimately alien to the customary British calendar. The irony is that this American festival sprang out of the history and customs of Britain – from the role of English pilgrims at America’s first Thanksgiving feast, to the long tradition of harvest and thanksgiving festivals from which the modern incarnation developed.

The Mayflower passenger list, pilgrims who departed on the Mayflower ship in 1620, from Plymouth, Devon.
Photograph by Visit England, Visit Plymouth

It is widely believed that the first Thanksgiving event in America took place in October 1621. Fifty three English Pilgrims, who had migrated to escape religious persecution, celebrated the first harvest in their new Plymouth colony (in New England) with 90 Native Americans, who had taught them how to cultivate the land and fish in the rivers. Similar harvest feasts took place across America for decades to come, but it was George Washington, in 1789, who issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, inviting Americans to thank God for their safety and happiness. After a campaign by the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln formally made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday, to be held on the final Thursday in November. The date was fixed as the fourth Thursday (November can sometimes feature five Thursdays) by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.

A celebratory harvest festival had been part of the fabric of British society since pre-Christian times, when Saxons would come together every autumn to eat supper, fashion symbolic straw dolls and sacrifice sheaves of corn. In giving thanks for the harvest, the Pilgrims of 1621 were following the cultural norms they were accustomed to. Although Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Britain, many churches and schools still celebrate the harvest festival each autumn, often alongside collections of food for charities.

Festivals of communal thanksgiving had become especially popular in the aftermath of the English Reformation. Henry VIII’s reforms saw the number of church holidays reduced from 95 to just 27 but this reforming instinct also led to a subsequent rise in Days of Thanksgiving for perceived acts of providence.

A bonfire at Hastings, East Sussex, to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night - when the original Gunpowder Plot was thwarted, a day of Thanksgiving was declared.
Photograph by Visit England, 1066 Country Marketing

Days of Thanksgiving were celebrated after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which became what is now known as Guy Fawkes Night. In their thanksgiving feast of 1621, the English Pilgrims were also embracing this familiar culture of providential thanksgiving events – a practice continued by later Puritan settlers.

The English were not the only influence on Thanksgiving in America. Harvest festivals were celebrated by other European settlers, and similar customs were followed by Native Americans long before the Europeans arrived. However, these activities remained largely unknown until the twentieth century. The events of 1621 represented “the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday” as we know it – and they provide an enduring reminder of Britain and America’s shared cultural heritage.

Gateway to Thanksgiving... looking out from Pilgrims Point, above the Mayflower Steps at the Barbican, Plymouth.
Photograph by Visit England, Visit Plymouth, Andy Fox

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