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Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated in North America. It is traditionally designated as a time to give thanks for the autumn harvest, and often for other good things, and the holiday occurs during the late autumn. In the United States, the holiday is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, where the harvest generally ends earlier in the year, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday in October.

Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated by a family feast. In the United States, it is an important family holiday, and people often travel across the country to be with family members for the holiday. Although the holiday is celebrated on Thursday there, it is common for employees to have Friday off as well, giving four days for travel and family reunion.

American tradition associates their holiday with a feast held by the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. Canadians trace their Thanksgiving holiday to a feast held by Martin Frobisher in Newfoundland in 1578. It is also probable that American loyalists who emigrated to Canada after American independence brought with them many of their Thanksgiving traditions.

Many of the details of the American Thanksgiving story are myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s as part of the effort to forge a common national identity in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the melting pot of new immigrants. In particular, Native Americans today often regard this holiday not as something for which they should be thankful but rather as the beginning of a tragic process that stole their land and decimated their population.

The history of Thanksgiving in the United States

The first official Thanksgiving in what would become the United States was on December 4, 1619, in Berkeley, Virginia. That was when the thirty-eight members of The Berkeley Company landed there after a three-month voyage in the Margaret. Having been recruited from Gloucestershire to establish a colony in the New World, the men were under orders to give thanks when they arrived, so the first thing they did was to kneel down and do so. (Benjamin Harrison V and President William Henry Harrison were both born in Berkeley, the house built at that site.)

Two American colonists have personal accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving in Massachusetts:

William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their house and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned by true reports.

Edward Winslow, in Mourt's Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Thanksgiving was not held again until 1623. It followed a drought, prayers for rain and a subsequent rain shower. Irregular Thanksgivings continued after favorable events and days of fasting after unfavorable ones. Gradually an annual Thanksgiving after the harvest developed in the mid-1600s. This did not occur on any set day or necessarily on the same day in different colonies.

George Washington, leader of the revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War, proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga. The Continental Congress proclaimed annual December Thanksgivings from 1777 to 1783, except in 1782. George Washington again proclaimed Thanksgivings, now as President, in 1789 and 1795. President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799, and President James Madison declared the holiday twice in 1815; however, none of these were celebrated in autumn.

It was President Abraham Lincoln that set the holiday as a regular yearly event for the final Thursday of November in 1863.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be the second to last Thursday of November rather than the last. This was to give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas; at the time it was considered inappropriate to advertise goods for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. However, Roosevelt's declaration was not mandatory; some states went along with this recommendation and others did not.

In 1941, Congress split the difference and established that the holiday would occur annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes the next to last.

The Christmas shopping season is now often held to begin when the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade[?] in New York City, which ends with the image of Santa Claus passing the reviewing stand. However, many merchants have by now begun to advertise Christmas well before Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving feast in the United States today

The centerpiece of the contemporary American Thanksgiving dinner is a large roasted turkey. Many other foods will be served with the turkey, often reflecting the cultural background of the family in question. Southerners are likely to serve sweet potatoes; Italian-Americans often have lasagna on the table; and Ashkenazi Jews may serve noodle kugel[?], a sweet pudding. There are also regional differences as to the "stuffing" (or "dressing") traditionally served with the turkey: Southerners generally make theirs from cornbread, while in other parts of the country white bread[?] is usual; oysters, chestnuts, or the turkey's giblets[?] may be included.

Thanksgiving dinner is generally served earlier than the usual evening meal, even in the afternoon; it is expected to be a very large meal, enough to satisfy the diners for the rest of the day.

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