More than 46 million turkeys are eaten every year at Thanksgiving – but it has not always been the main dish, and neither has the fourth Thursday in November always been the official Thanksgiving Day.
In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared a harvest feast, which is known today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, the days of Thanksgiving were celebrated by states and colonies individually.
In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States. He wanted Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the US Constitution. New York became the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday – this happened in 1817.
In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, author and noted magazine editor, launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, and presidents. Abraham Lincoln heeded her request in 1863 and made Thanksgiving an official national holiday every last Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving was celebrated that very day every year until 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week. He wanted to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. His plan, also known as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, but in 1941, the president signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
When the colonists sat down to dine with the Wampanoag Indians, beef and fowl were on the menu. That is known thanks to the letters and records kept by early American settlers. It remains unsure what kind of fowl that was served, but a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions a turkey hunting trip before the meal.
Another theory says that the turkey tradition comes from the Queen of England. During the 16th century, a fleet of Spanish ships sank on their way to attack England. According to a legend, Queen Elizabeth received the news while eating dinner. The legend states that she got so excited that she ordered another goose to be served. Some early settlers were inspired by the queen’s actions and roasted a turkey instead of a goose, according to some historians.
Exactly how the turkey ended up on the dinner table still remains unknown, and these are only two of the many theories out there. No matter how and where they came from, they will still be a big part of the annual Thanksgiving dinner.