Thanksgiving is a major holiday in the USA and Canada, though celebrated on different days. The holiday can trace its roots to harvest festivals and religious thanksgiving services that became widespread during the English Reformation. These days Thanksgiving is celebrated mostly in a secular manner with customs that hark back to the original harvest festivals.
On the farm of the National Turkey Federation chairperson, a flock of approximately 80 birds are selected at birth from thousands of others. These 80 birds are raised in the same fashion as turkeys designated for slaughter. The one difference is that they are trained to keep quiet in crowded situations, to handle loud noises, to face flash photography and to be composed when they are touched and hugged. The 20 largest and best-behaved will be chosen from the 80 birds, and eventually narrowed down to two finalists. White House staff members will name the two, and they will then be presented to the President at White House Turkey Pardon Ceremony. Two are chosen so if one gets stage fright, there is an alternate.
Because Thanksgiving turkeys are bred and raised for size, they are prone to health problems such as obesity, heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage. As a result, most of the pardoned turkeys have very short lives. Most of them will die within a year after being pardoned, while an ordinary turkey’s lifespan is five years.
The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation Ceremony, dating back to the 1940s, is held at the White House every year shortly before Thanksgiving. The President of the United States is presented with a live domestic turkey, usually of the Broad Breasted White variety. The Presidents would enjoy the bird presented to them. For example, Dwight Eisenhower ate the birds presented to him during his two terms, according to the documents in the Eisenhower Presidential Library.
Occasionally, some Presidents will spare the bird. President John F. Kennedy spontaneously spared a turkey on Nov. 18, 1963, just four days before his assassination. The bird was wearing a sign reading, "Good Eating Mr. President." Kennedy returned the massive 55-pound turkey to the farm, saying "We'll let this one grow." Richard Nixon also spared some of the turkeys given to him during his time as President.
Ronald Reagan was the first President who issued a "pardon" to his turkey. But Reagan did not pardon a turkey in his final year as President in 1988. His successor, George H. W. Bush, however, instituted the turkey pardon as a permanent part of the presentation beginning his first year in office, 1989. Since then, at least one of the turkeys presented to the President has been taken to a farm where it will live out the rest of its natural life.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.
Most importantly, though less known, Hale is probably the single most important advocate for the Thanksgiving holiday in the USA. In 1846, Hale began to advocate for the national holiday. She wrote letters to five Presidents of the United States: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln, but all in vain. She finally convinced President Lincoln to establish through legislation a national holiday of Thanksgiving as a unifying day after the strife of the American Civil War. However, due to the ongoing Civil War and the Confederate States of America's refusal to recognize Lincoln's authority, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is the largest and second-oldest (1924), after Philadelphia's (1920), Thanksgiving parade in the USA. It was first organized in the 1920s by Macy's department store employees, many of whom were first-generation European immigrants. Proud of their new American heritage, they wanted to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving with the type of festival their parents had loved in Europe.
The parade is known for its size and the prevalence of balloons. The first balloon to feature was one of Felix the Cat in 1927, soon followed by balloons of Disney characters in the 1930s. Nowadays balloons of all types feature during the parade.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Americans usually refer to the Thanksgiving feast in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts as the "First Thanksgiving". It is recorded that the feast lasted for three days and was held spontaneously to celebrate the first harvest. The exact date is not recorded, but occurred between Sep 21 and Nov 11 1621. The colonists invited local Indians, such as Squanto, a Patuxet who had taught to fish for eel and grow native corn.
However, this is not the first recorded thanksgiving feast by Europeans. It is preceded by Frobisher in 1578. Furthermore, the Commonwealth of Virginia had held Thanksgiving services as early as 1607. There are also records of the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610.
The Plymouth Thanksgiving has most prominence probably because it received the most publicity from Boston Brahmins and their press. It shows once again the pen is as might as the sword.
Thanksgiving religious services became important, during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII. At the time, there were 95 Church holidays as well as 52 Sundays when people had to attend Church and not work. This was both time-consuming and expensive. In response, many Protestants reduced the number of holidays to 27, although some Puritans had clamoured to eliminate all holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The original holidays were replaced with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to acts of special providence. For example, Days of Fasting were observed for the drought in 1611, for the floods in 1613, and for the plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were celebrated following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
On the other side of the pond, early explorers and immigrants held Thanksgiving ceremonies upon arrival in thanks for surviving the long journey with its hazardous storms and icebergs, or in thanks for surviving the cold winter in the New Land. For example, the explorer Martin Frobisher held a solemn ceremony in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island (Nunavut) to give thanks to God for making the journey. Early French settlers, who came to New France with explorer Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France and Quebec City, on July 3, 1608, had feasts together with the indigenous peoples of the area at the end of the harvest season to celebrate their successful harvests. This is supposed to be the origin of Canadian Thanksgiving. However, the first official Canadian Thanksgiving occurred on April 15, 1872, when the nation was celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from a serious illness.
The New England colonists regularly celebrated thanksgivings — days of prayer thanking God for blessing. After first harvest in the New World in 1621, the Pilgrims observed "First Thanksgiving". The three day feast was attended by 90 Native Wampanoag Indians and 53 Pilgrims. That occasion is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies though the debates over when or where the "first Thanksgiving" took place on modern American territory is a "tempest in a bean pot".
Thanksgiving Day, a national public holiday in Canada, falls on the second Monday of October since 1957. It is a chance for people to give thanks for a good harvest and other fortunes in the past year. Many people have the day off work and all schools and post offices are closed. It coincides with Remembrance Day in Europe and Columbus Day in the USA.
Long before Europeans arrived and settled in Canada, the native peoples held ceremonies and festivals after the harvest. Native harvest customs and foods may have been incorporated into the days of thanksgivings of the early European settlers. During the American Civil War, refugees fleeing from the war brought the custom of an annual thanksgiving festival to Canada. From 1879, Thanksgiving Day was held every year but the date varied with various special theme each year. The common theme was the "Blessings of an abundant harvest". In later years, Queen Victoria's golden and diamond jubilees and King Edward VII's coronation became the key theme.
After the official end of of World War I, Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day in 1931 and Thanksgiving Day was moved to a Monday in October. Since 1957, Thanksgiving Day has always been held on the second Monday in October. The symbols of Thanksgiving Day in Canada is a cornucopia, or horn, filled with seasonal fruit and vegetables, which is from the European harvest festival tradition and which means "Horn of Plenty" in Latin, a symbol of bounty and plenty in ancient Greece.