Holidays from a Philanthropic Perspective: Thanksgiving

Festivals to celebrate abundance have occurred for thousands of years. When the English settlers came to America, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. Individuals of various faiths celebrate this holiday and have started holiday traditions of giving food or resources to those who do not have an abundance.


In the month of November, the fourth Thursday is known as Thanksgiving. This legal holiday is celebrated throughout the United States, in the United States territories and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In today’s society, Thanksgiving is about family traditions and a meal with turkey and many other dishes. On this day, the President of the United States gives a proclamation and many governors of different states will also say something about the holiday.

Historic Roots

The origin of a special day to give thanks did not start in America. In earlier times, much before the American Thanksgiving originated, there were special festivals. These festivals were given to rejoice for abundant harvests (Christianson 2000). Please see key related ideas section for more information regarding these festivals.

The first American Thanksgiving took place on December 4, 1619 when a group of English settlers, 38 in all, arrived at Berkeley Plantation on the James River. This was a religious event as their charter stated that this day should be celebrated annually to give thanksgiving to God (Henderson 2005).

The first “official” Thanksgiving is the one that took place in October of 1621 at Plymouth Colony, the year after the Pilgrims settled on the New England Coast. This is the event that modern day Thanksgivings are modeled after. In this feast that lasted three days, the Pilgrims were accompanied by the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, Massasoit, and 90 fellow tribesmen (Henderson 2005). The food consisted of a “great store of wild Turkies,” dried fruits, corn, green vegetables, clams, bass and lobsters. The Wampanoag tribesmen also brought five deer (Hatch 1978). For entertainment, the militia fired their rifles, the tribesmen showed off their traditional dances, and there were athletic competitions such as foot races (Hatch 1978). During the year of 1622, there was no Thanksgiving day for the pilgrims. In 1623, a great drought happened. Finally, rain came and saved the harvest. Governor Bradford stated “all the Pilgrims with your wives and little ones, do gather at the meetinghouse, on the hill . . . there to listen to the pastor, and render thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings” (Hatch 1978). After this year, Thanksgiving was celebrated occasionally but with no specific day.

Many states and the Episcopal Church celebrated Thanksgiving holidays but in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stated that the national day to give thanks would be the last Thursday in November. For 75 years, this was the day that was celebrated as Thanksgiving. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving so it would be one week earlier. This was done because it would allow more time for shopping for Christmas. Effective after 1941, Congress ruled that the legal federal holiday of Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday of November (Henderson 2005).


Thanksgiving is a day to be thankful for the harvest and have gratitude for blessings that have happened throughout the year. “Thanksgiving is, almost without exception, the family’s day. Christmas or New Year’s Day may be spent with friends, but Thanksgiving dinners are family affairs and celebrated almost entirely within the home” (Ickis 1964).

On this day, people of different faiths will often worship together in religious services held in many different locations. In these services, religious heritage and traditions are the major themes (Krythe 1962). Other major themes in these services are gratitude and the appropriate way to regard material belongings (Hatch 1978).

Thanksgiving has become such a beloved holiday that it has been celebrated overseas. During World War II, in 1942, more than 3,500 American troops joined in services at Westminster Abbey in London that including the singing of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In Westminster Abbey, this was the first special service other than a Church of England ritual to be held in nine centuries (Hatch 1978).

“It is also a time of sharing with the less fortunate, and churches, schools and many philanthropic societies see to it that no one goes hungry. To many, it is the one day in the year they remember to give thanks for all America has done for them” (Ickis 1964).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

An Englishman, George Sala, who came to New York in 1879, witnessed the day of Thanksgiving. In his book, America Revisited, he states “the poorest of the poor, the meanest of the mean, the lowest of the fallen were regaled with the succulent white meat. The destitute and the infirm, the prisoners and captives were abundantly fed” (Krythe 1962). He was told that there was a lot of poverty and suffering, however, on Thanksgiving, he stated “the Good Samaritan was out and about in every street of the great city on Thursday, laden with the good things of the earth, and sedulously seeking for the poor folks to relieve their bodily needs, and comfort them with kind words” (Krythe 1962).

The day of Thanksgiving is often seen as a day to share with the less fortunate. “Churches, rescue missions, school classes, and many philanthropic organizations see to it that no one goes hungry on this truly American holiday” (Krythe 1962)

Key Related Ideas

The following ideas represent festivals that took place before the American Thanksgiving was started.

Demeter: She was the Greek goddess of agriculture. The Greeks honored her with a nine-day event. The Romans honored Ceres, who was similar to Demeter (Christianson 2000).

Feast of Tabernacles: This is an eight-day event for Jews to give thanks for plentiful harvests. This has continued from ancient times to present day (Christianson 2000).

Kirn: This was a harvest celebration in Scotland. There were special church services and an ample dinner (Christianson 2000).

Lammas Day: On August 1 in Britain, this day was celebrated if there was a plentiful wheat crop. If there was not, then it was not celebrated. On this day, farmers brought loaves of bread to mass. This was a token of thanksgiving. Hence, Lamas is also known as Loaf Mass Day (Cohen and Coffin 1987).

Yabichi: It was a day of dancing and feasting where the American Indians, such as the Navaho, thanked the gods of rain and sun for the growth of their corn crop. This day took place in November (Greninger 1979).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Governor William Bradford (1590-1657): In October of 1621, he proclaimed a day of thanksgiving (Hatch 1978). He “sent four men fowling, so they might in a special manner rejoice together after they had gathered the fruit of their labor.” (Hatch 1978). In a law of November 15, 1636, the governor was allowed “to command solemn days of humiliation by fasting, etc., and also for thanksgiving as occasion shall be offered” (Hatch 1978).
  • Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879): She was instrumental in the establishment of a national Thanksgiving Day on a permanent basis. In 1827, she was the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine and began to call for the same day throughout America to give thanks for the blessings of the year. Ladies’ Magazine was consolidated with Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she began writing editorials. She also wrote to Presidents and to all of the governors in the states (Hatch 1978).
  • Squanto (he died in 1622): This man was a Pawtuxet Indian and helped the pilgrims to plant and cultivate barley and corn (Hatch 1978). This man was instrumental in helping the Pilgrims survive.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Pilgrim Hall Museum is an organization located in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They entertain and educate people about the story of the Pilgrims and our nation’s founding (
  • Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum of Plymouth as it was in the 17th Century. They have many events that showcase Plymouth’s history (
  • Thanks-Giving Square is an international organization that is located in Dallas, Texas. This foundation is about the spirit of thanksgiving in the United States and around the world. (

Related Web Sites

The History Channel’s Web Site of Thanksgiving,, features many interesting facts about Thanksgiving and its history. It provides information about the pilgrims eating habits, how their food was cooked and what their food was.

The NOBLE Web Site,, contains many Web site links. NOBLE, the North of Boston Library Exchange, Web site has categories of general Thanksgiving, reading and activities, food and recipes, and history Web site links.

The Web site, Thanksgiving on the Web, contains many Web site links to a variety of sources including Thanksgiving proclamations, poetry, recipes, arts and crafts, and historical references.


Christianson, Stephen, ed. The American Book of Days, Fourth Edition. New York, H.W. Wilson Company, 2000. ISBN: 0824209540.

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, ed. The Folklore of American Holidays, 1st Edition. Detroit, Gale Research Co., 1987 ISBN: 0810321262.

Greninger, Edwin. “Thanksgiving: An American Holiday.” Social Science 54 (1979) 1, 3-15.

Hatch, Jane, ed. The American Book of Days, Third Edition. New York, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1978. ISBN: 0824205936.

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Detroit, Omnigraphics, Inc., 2005. ISBN: 0780804228.

Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festival Holidays. New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1964.

Krythe, Maymie. All About American Holidays. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1962.