A Short (Etymological) History of Thanksgiving Day
  • 4-minute read
  • 26th November 2020

A Short (Etymological) History of Thanksgiving Day

Every year, on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. But when did this holiday begin? And should you always capitalise ‘Thanksgiving’? Grab a plate of turkey, pull up a seat, and let’s dig into the history, and etymology, of Thanksgiving Day.

Where Did Thanksgiving Day Come From?

The story of Thanksgiving Day goes back to the first Pilgrims (or English settlers) in America. After landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they settled on land formerly inhabited by the Patuxet Indians.

In 1621, these settlers had their first successful harvest from the land. As such, they gathered to give praise and thanksgiving to God, along with 90 Native Americans, who had helped the settlers survive their first winter.

The first 'Thanksgiving', as imagined by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 300 years later.
The first ‘Thanksgiving’, as imagined by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 300 years later.

This scene is commonly referenced when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. However, the peace between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did not last. And while some Native American tribes later formed alliances with settlers, many fought with the English, who subjected them to tremendous bloodshed and often drove tribes from their ancestral lands.

In truth, the Thanksgiving Americans celebrate today is more closely linked to something President Abraham Lincoln declared in 1861. On 28 November, he ordered all governmental departments to close as a day of thanksgiving for ‘general blessings’. This aligns with what most Americans do with their loved ones on Thanksgiving Day: they give thanks for their blessings. And they eat a lot, which does mean modern Thanksgiving shares something with the harvest festivals of the past!

But what about the word ‘thanksgiving’? Where does it come from? And when was it first applied to the holiday? Let’s take a look.

The Etymology of ‘Thanksgiving’

These days, the word ‘Thanksgiving’ almost always refers to the US national holiday. This makes it a proper noun, so it is usually written with a capital ‘T’ at the start of ‘Thanksgiving’ (and a capital ‘D’ for ‘Day’ when this follows).

However, the term itself is an old-fashioned common noun that doesn’t require capitalisation. Typically, it was used in religious contexts:

We offer a prayer in thanksgiving for this bountiful harvest.

The origins of the term are simple enough: ‘thanksgiving’ is a compound noun made up of the words ‘thanks’ and ‘giving’. What might be surprising is that the word was first used in the 1530s, more than a hundred years before the Pilgrim’s first ‘thanksgiving’. By contrast, the first recorded uses of ‘Thanksgiving Day’ as a proper noun come from the 1670s.

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A Thanksgiving Day Poem

Like many holidays, Thanksgiving has inspired a lot of literature. To finish this post, then, let’s look at a Thanksgiving Day poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

Thanksgiving

We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender.

Our cares are bold and push their way
Upon our thought and feeling.
They hand about us all the day,
Our time from pleasure stealing.
So unobtrusive many a joy
We pass by and forget it,
But worry strives to own our lives,
And conquers if we let it.

There’s not a day in all the year
But holds some hidden pleasure,
And looking back, joys oft appear
To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold,
Who love and labor near us.
We ought to raise our notes of praise
While living hearts can hear us.

Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.

We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.

And finally, whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving Day itself, we hope you have plenty of reasons to give thanks in your life. And if you have written any poetry of your own, feel free to submit it for proofreading.

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