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Climate and the History of Thanksgiving

UPDATED November 20, 2013

By WeatherBug Meteorologists

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The history of Thanksgiving is directly intertwined with weather and climate. What is often considered the first Thanksgiving feast was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1621. The feast was seen as a way to give thanks for the bountiful harvest the Pilgrims had been blessed with and was shared with the neighboring Wampanoag Indians.

However, the Pilgrims were not the first to have a ceremony to give thanks for a harvest. The Algonkian tribes from the Great Lakes to New England held six thanksgiving festivals during the year:

  • Maple dance - gave thanks to the creator for the maple tree and its syrup. Took place when weather was warm enough for sap to run in maple trees, usually February - March.
  • Planting feast - blessing for the seeds.
  • Strawberry festival - celebrated first fruits of the season.
  • Green corn festival - took place in summer.
  • Frost festival - after Indian summer and first frost.
  • Harvest festival - late fall.

To this day, most of the typical Thanksgiving foods are late fall crops typical of a New England harvest. These include cranberries, sweet potatoes and sometimes the "three sisters" - corn, winter squash, and lima beans.

Cranberries require very particular growing conditions, which are typically found in bogs. Southeast Massachusetts, where Plymouth is located, has many such bogs, which have a rare combination of sandy soil, a favorable climate and underlying geological conditions that maintain an adequate water supply.

When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, they found they could not grow cash crops like tobacco and sugar because of the rocky soil and harsh climate.

The Pilgrims did bring with them seeds from England, including corn. However, these did not reproduce well in New England. On nearby Cape Cod, they found yellow, red, and blue corn from Native Americans in 1621. With the help of Squanto and other Native Americans, the Pilgrims acquired the knowledge needed to grow corn in New England`s unique climate.

Other facts about Thanksgiving:
  • Feasts of Thanksgiving had been observed by Pilgrims for many years before coming to America.
  • 1621 - The first American Thanksgiving likely featured wild venison and fowl rather than turkey.
  • 1623 - A Thanksgiving was observed on June 30 to pray for rain after a long drought.
  • 1939 -President Franklin Roosevelt moves Thanksgiving up a week when it`s discovered that it fell on November 30th that year. Fearing that was too late to kick off the traditional Christmas shopping season during the final years of the Great Depression, he announced Thanksgiving would be moved to November 23rd. Public outcry made Congress sign a law into effect in 1941 to officially designate that Thanksgiving be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
  • Iroquois mixed their crops using an "interplanting" system. Two or three weeks after the corn was planted, the women returned to plant bean seeds in the same hills. The beans contributed nitrogen to the soil, and the cornstalks served as bean poles. Between the rows, the farmers cultivated a low-growing crop such as squash or pumpkins, the leaves of which shaded the ground, preserving moisture and inhibiting weed growth.

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Story image: Clyde the turkey struts around the front lawn of the Governor`s Mansion in Montgomery, Ala., Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Gov. Robert Bentley issued a Thanksgiving pardon for the bird. AP Photo/Dave Martin

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