If you could travel back in time to 1621, tap a Pilgrim on the shoulder, and ask him to define “Thanksgiving Day,” his answer might surprise you. For the Pilgrims, a “day of thanksgiving” was not marked by feasting, family, and fellowship — the happy hallmarks of the holiday we now celebrate. It was a different matter altogether. A “thanksgiving day” was set aside for prayer and worship.
The Pilgrims brought with them from England the religious custom of marking days of thanksgiving. Days of thanksgiving were called in response to specific beneficences such as a successful harvest, propitious weather, or a military victory. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their First Thanksgiving in the New World didn’t take place until 1623, two years after they and the Wampanoag Indians sat down together at the now-famous feast. The occasion was a rainfall that saved their harvest — and their lives. If the harvest had failed, famine was sure to follow and the settlement of Plymouth might not have survived.
All the New England colonies followed the custom of designating days of public thanksgiving. At some point in the 1600s, the colonies began to designate annual thanksgiving days, usually in the autumn, around the time of the harvest. These celebrations were deemed “general” thanksgivings for ordinary, everyday blessings. They were usually called by civil, not religious, authorities.
In 1639, Connecticut was the first to make Thanksgiving an annual event. It is impossible to know precisely when the feasting and family aspects of Thanksgiving Day began to overtake the religious ones, but they had caught on by the the end of the 17th century. Churches accommodated the custom of a feast by eliminating the afternoon service. Soon Thanksgiving dinner was nearly as important as morning prayer.