How Has Thanksgiving in America Evolved?

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Most Americans take Thanksgiving for granted, but this important holiday has undergone numerous changes throughout the years before arriving at its present form. Today we celebrate Turkey Day each year on the fourth Thursday of November, but the nation's first official Thanksgiving was proclaimed for one year only. President George Washington's proclamation in 1789 established the holiday on a specific day: Nov. 26. As Washington proclaimed:

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. 

Source: User pulaw via Flickr.

Turkey played a part in the earliest American Thanksgivings, but residents of the 13 colonies were just as likely to eat roast venison, pork, goose, duck, or beef -- the meat course was a family choice rather than a national tradition. Apple and pumpkin pies, however, were every bit as popular in the 18th century as they are today.


Officially sanctioned Thanksgiving holidays were celebrated sporadically through the following decades, with a long lull in national proclamations after 1815. President Abraham Lincoln established the modern tradition by proclaiming an official celebration for the last Thursday of November in 1863. That day, incidentally, was also Nov. 26. By this point, turkey was firmly ensconced as the main meat of Thanksgiving dinner, because, as Slate's Michelle Tsai explains:

[Turkeys] were fresh, affordable, and big enough to feed a crowd. Americans have long preferred large poultry for celebrations because the birds could be slaughtered without a huge economic sacrifice. ... Eating turkey was also in keeping with British holiday customs that had been imported to the New World.

Among the big birds, turkey was ideal for a fall feast. Turkeys born in the spring would spend about seven months eating insects and worms on the farm, growing to about ten pounds by Thanksgiving. They were cheaper than geese, which were more difficult to raise, and cheaper by the pound than chickens. Cost was an important factor for holiday shoppers, because people weren't necessarily preparing just one meal; Thanksgiving was the time to bake meat and other types of pies that could last through the winter.

The modern fourth-Thursday tradition was not established until 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a Thanksgiving bill into law. The first "official" fourth-Thursday Thanksgiving took place the following year, also on Nov. 26.

Today, Thanksgiving is a major boon to certain agricultural producers, and it also signals the impending start of Black Friday, the most notorious shopping day of the year. More than 46 million turkeys are eaten in the United States every Thanksgiving, which is nearly a fifth of the 254 million turkeys raised in the country each year. In 2010, U.S. sales of 7.11 billion pounds of turkey generated $4.37 billion in revenue.

Butterball, a familiar name every Thanksgiving, is the country's largest turkey-producer, with 1.3 billion pounds processed in 2010. That's a lot of drumsticks! Unfortunately for investors, it remains private. However, the next-largest producer is public: Jennie-O, a subsidiary of Hormel , produces nearly the same amount of turkey as Butterball.

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The article How Has Thanksgiving in America Evolved? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more insight into markets, history, and technology.The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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