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When is Thanksgiving Day and why is it celebrated?

In the US, Thanksgiving Day will be celebrated on Thursday, November 23.

The First Thanksgiving in 1621

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, with its roots in a celebration of the annual harvest.

When is Thanksgiving Day?

  • Fourth Thursday of November. In the US, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November. This year, it falls on Thursday, November 23.
  • President Abraham Lincoln was the first US president to officially declare the festival as the last Thursday in November.
  • The date was set in stone by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1939 and approved by Congress in 1941.
  • International celebration. Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Canada, Grenada, the Philippines, Saint Lucia, Liberia and the Netherlands.
  • Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. 
  • Black Friday. Friday after Thanksgiving kickstarts the Christmas shopping season with promotional sales. 
  • The day after Thanksgiving was called "Black Friday" in a 1951 journal referring to workers calling in sick in order to have a four-day Thanksgiving weekend.

Why is it called Thanksgiving? 

  • Blessing of the harvest. It began as a day where people took the opportunity of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year.
  • In the US, the celebration is often recognised as an event that took place when English colonists held a feast to thank Native Americans for helping them start new lives in the US.
  • "The First Thanksgiving" was celebrated after their first harvest in October 1621. The feast lasted three days.
  • Five letters to five US presidents. After a long campaign, Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of Godey's Lady Book - a colonial women's magazine - is credited with making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the US.  
  • In support of the proposed national holiday, Hale wrote letters to five presidents of the US. The letter she wrote to Lincoln convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of thanksgiving in 1863.
  • "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution," she wrote.
  • Before Thanksgiving Day, the only national holidays celebrated in the US were Washington's Birthday and Independence Day.
  • National day of Mourning. From the perspective of many Native Americans, the holiday symbolises centuries of land seizure and the erosion of tribal cultures.
  • The United American Indians of New England protest group accuses the US and European settlers of fabricating the Thanksgiving story, and, since 1970, the group has organised a National Day of Mourning protest on the day.

Why is it celebrated with turkey?

  • Hamilton's turkey. Eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the US precedes Lincoln's nationalisation of the holiday in 1863. In the 19th century, founding father Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that no "Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."
  • Some give credit to Hale, whose accounts emphasised a roast turkey and eventually became the model for the festivities.
  • Others believe the birds were chosen because they are large enough to feed many people, and they don't serve a purpose like laying eggs or making milk.
  • More than 50 million turkeys are served in the US every year for Thanksgiving.
  • Pardon tradition. Dating back to at least 1947, US presidents were gifted with turkeys at Thanksgiving. These turkeys were usually eaten.
  • Ronald Reagan was the first president to "pardon" a turkey, in 1987. His successor, George HW Bush, made the pardoning ceremony into a White House tradition from 1989 onwards.

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