The first Thanksgiving is a well-known story. Everyone knows that the Pilgrims and Indians ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert, right? Oops, make that roast swan, goose, duck, venison, corn meal mush, stewed pumpkin, cornbread, chestnuts, and seafood. And for dessert? Dried fruit, of course. Imagine eating a Thanksgiving dinner like that! Why didn't the Pilgrims eat the traditional Thanksgiving foods we eat today?
Way back in 1621, when the 1st Thanksgiving feast was held, these foods were mostly nonexistent in North America. For instance, the Pilgrims couldn't have had mashed potatoes, because potatoes mostly grew in South America back then. The same went for sweet potatoes. They did have pumpkin, but no pies; and cranberries, but no sugar. The ship carrying their baking ingredients hadn't arrived yet. They might have eaten wild turkey, but it's more likely that they ate other birds, such as swans, which they often hunted.
The first domestic turkeys were apparently raised in Central and South America by the Aztecs and Mayas. Spanish explorers described seeing their first turkey as “a kind of peacock with great hanging chins.” Some of these birds probably made their way to Europe on one of Christopher Columbus's ships. The Pilgrims brought turkeys with them on the Mayflower. Along with wild turkeys, these prized birds provided the main course for extremely special occasions. They slowly became associated with the American Thanksgiving tradition.
In 1776, America declared its independence. As its national symbol, it chose the bald eagle. When a seal was printed, however, everyone got a good chuckle. The bird on the seal was poorly drawn; it looked more like a turkey than an eagle. When Benjamin Franklin saw it, he was pleased because of the resemblance. The turkey, a courageous and noble bird, was a much better choice for our nation's symbol than the eagle, he thought.
Although there were many Thanksgiving proclamations in the decades after 1621, including some by U.S. Presidents, Thanksgiving would not become an official holiday until over 2 centuries later. During the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed two Thanksgivings in one year; one to celebrate the victory at Gettysburg, and one to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. This was a one-time proclamation, but Americans continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the latter date every year, until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt made it an official holiday. And that's how we came to celebrate Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday of every November.