Harvest Festival flowers in a church in Shrewsbury, England

It’s almost time to break out the pumpkin (or apple, or pecan) pies, candied yams, cranberry sauce, and, of course, roast turkey. For many Americans, a family meal featuring traditional fare is the basis of a Thanksgiving celebration. But you may surprised, as I was, at just how far back in history our Thanksgiving tradition is rooted.

A common belief is that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving after sailing on the Mayflower to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 to set up a colony. However, the origins of this feast go back much further. People during the Regency era would have known about, and participated in, days of thanksgiving, although their observances likely included more praying and less feasting.

Thanksgiving as we know it can actually be traced back to pre-Christian Britain. The Saxons used to offer the first fruits of their harvest to their fertility gods, with a community supper to follow. Even after Christianity took hold on the British Isles, the tradition of a supper in thanksgiving for the harvest remained.

During the time of Henry VIII and the English Reformation, religious thanksgiving services became even more important. Days of thanksgiving were called not only for good harvests but also for special occasions, including the victory of England over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. (That particular day of thanksgiving has morphed into Guy Fawkes Day.)

So, it’s no surprise that English settlers brought the concept of thanksgiving days with them when they came to America. However, the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to hold a day of thanksgiving on American soil.

A shrine to the first US Thanksgiving, held in 1619 in Charles City County, Virginia

In 1619, a group of 38 English settlers sailed to Virginia to form a colony. The London Company (also known as the Virginia Company of London) that sponsored the voyage told the settlers that “the day of our ships arrival . . . shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of Thanksgiving.”  The colonists faithfully complied, writing the thanksgiving provision into their charter.

This documented thanksgiving tradition was established two years  before the Pilgrims conducted their own thanksgiving in 1621 in gratitude for a good harvest, as well as for surviving a brutal winter.

In England and her colonies thanksgiving days continued to be celebrated as needed, often declared by the Church of England and coupled with religious services and fasting. Military victories and recovery after plagues were occasions for a day of thanksgiving, in addition to gratitude for a bountiful harvest.

Today, Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States and Canada, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the US and on the second Monday of October in Canada. It’s also officially and unofficially celebrated in a few other countries as well. In the United Kingdom, the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving doesn’t have a specific date, but according to tradition it’s held either on or close to the Sunday of the harvest moon that is nearest the autumnal equinox.

Thanksgiving can mean many things to many people, but however you observe this day, I hope you have a happy one!


Sources for this post include:

America’s Favorite Holidays, Candid Histories, by Bruce David Forbes, University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

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One Comment

  1. I grew up in the UK and remember celebrating thanksgiving or harvest festival Sundays at church, especially in the more rural areas. The church would be decorated with sheaves of wheat, various vegetables, and flowers (whatever was around in September or October). We’d sing hymns like “We plough the field and scatter” which doesn’t seem to be sung much in the US. Our family didn’t have a special meal though, the church service sufficed.

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