History of Thanksgiving: How a Fashion Editor, the Civil War and the Great Depression Created Today’s Holiday

Culinary historian Linda Pelaccio shares how the modern holiday came to be, including why we celebrate on a Thursday and what the term "Franksgiving" referred to.

Thanksgiving may have its roots in a 1621 harvest feast celebrated by members of the Wampanoag tribe and early colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it was several hundred years and dozens of different traditions later that our modern-day Thanksgiving holiday came to be.

“Thanksgiving is a holiday that has a long history, and it’s amazing it has lasted this long and we [continue to] celebrate it," Linda Pelaccio, a culinary historian and host of the podcast "A Taste of the Past," told InsideEdition.com. 

So how did the holiday come to be celebrated by people from all walks of life across the country on the fourth Thursday in November? It turns out there's a lot more to it than that 1621 feast. 

"I don’t think the word Thanksgiving was really there,” Pelaccio explained of that early celebration. “It was a harvest feast. The only thing we really know from that account is that there was a lot of fowl on the table and a lot of venison.”

Later on, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Thanksgiving wasn't so much celebrated as a singular holiday, but rather as several celebratory feasts, Pelaccio said. Such feasts were held to celebrate a good harvest, a victory in battle or the slaughtering of livestock in autumn before winter.

Then, in 1789, George Washington issued a public proclamation designating "a day of public thanks-giving," but "it never really went anywhere" and wasn't widely celebrated, Pelaccio explained.

The Thanksgiving holiday cause was taken up once again in the mid-19th century by New Hampshire native Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist and editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book, an influential fashion magazine at the time.

"She decided she wanted to make this a national holiday that everyone should celebrate on the same day," Pelaccio said of Hale, explaining that she lobbied New Hampshire's governor to make it happen.

After successfully getting her governor to declare Thanksgiving a holiday on a state level, Hale continued her advocacy to make the day part of American life around the country.

When it reached the desk of President Abraham Lincoln in the days following the Civil War, it appeared to be the perfect way to bring Americans together. 

"It was seen as a good way to unify the country and bring peace to everyone," Pelaccio said. "We should all gather together on this one day of the year to give thanks."

The decision to celebrate the holiday on a Thursday was the result of different religious groups’ influences, Pelaccio explained. Leaders needed to come up with a day separate enough from the Sabbath to celebrate, and so they settled on a Thursday.

The idea of coming together for a big meal was also influenced by the way people relaxed after a long day of worship, even though the religious overtones have largely faded from the modern American Thanksgiving celebration.

Protestant worshippers in colonial America "would spend a day in services in churches and then come back and have a big meal," Pelaccio said. "Then, when the Puritans came in and took over a lot of the New England areas, it was even more so."

The tradition of having a large feast after church continued well into the 1800s and sometimes, such a meal was even spread over two days, she added. Some religious communities in the U.S. still hold meals after worship services. 

The timing of Thanksgiving has also changed over the years. 

"Thanksgiving had been celebrated the last Thursday of November for a long time, and a lot of people complained about that because it came too late in the season and was too close to Christmas, so it kind of squeezed the holidays together," Pelaccio said.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he would move Thanksgiving up to the fourth week of November beginning in 1941, partly in the hopes that it would help boost retail sales during the Great Depression. The decision drew mockery and led to the term "Franksgiving," a combination of the president's name and the holiday's. 

Despite the initial mockery, however, the American people soon embraced the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Because the holiday isn't tied to any one religion or group, its popularity is timeless and its message still resonates centuries later. 

"It's a holiday to give thanks. It's not attached to anyone's particular religion or background. It's just a day of having food on the table – plenty of food on the table – and being together with family and friends," Pelaccio said.