On the fourth Thursday of November, kitchen lights throughout America will be flicked on before dawn. Ovens will be preheated and prepared to receive huge stuffed birds that will roast for hours before being served. Children will huddle in front of television sets to watch parades, while eagerly awaiting the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This busy Thursday is Thanksgiving—the annual holiday designated to give thanks for a bountiful year.
In recent history, Thanksgiving has become well-known as the eve of the busiest shopping day of the year. In some communities, stores open Thanksgiving afternoon for those who want to get a jump start on gift-buying. But the holiday has much more significance and meaning.
Most everyone knows that the first official Thanksgiving celebration took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in October 1621. But Thanksgiving can trace its roots to the harvest festivals of ancient Greece and Rome.
According to the book Holiday Symbols by Sue Ellen Thompson (Omnigraphics, 2000) the Greeks honored Demeter, their corn goddess, with an annual festival known as Thesmophoria. It was celebrated in October when the seeds for the following year's crop were ready for planting.
The Roman holiday, Cerealia, was held each year on October 4 to honor the grain goddess, Ceres. She was offered the first fruits of the harvest in a parade through the fields. Games, sports, and a huge feast followed.
Harvest celebrations are traditional in many cultures, both ancient and modern. The Jewish holiday, Sukkot, also known as the Feast of the Tabernacle, is celebrated through the construction of booths which are lined with apples, grapes, corn, pomegranates, and other fruits and vegetables. Although the foods and festivities of the early thanksgivings differed, they were all social as well as religious occasions.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the United States in 1863. For twenty years Sarah Hale, an editor at a women's magazine, petitioned presidents and government officials to establish an annual day of thanksgiving. President Abraham Lincoln chose the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to move the holiday up one week to allow more time for Christmas shopping in an attempt to stimulate a sagging economy. The change caused an uproar. Congress ruled that same year that Thanksgiving would continue to be the fourth Thursday of the month when they made it a legal federal holiday.
Parades became a holiday event in 1920 when the now defunct department store, Gimbel's, held one in Philadelphia. New York's Macy's followed in 1924 with what has become the preeminent extravaganza.