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The History of the American Thanksgiving Day Celebration
by John A. Cofrancesco

I have been asked to write a brief paper for our Cofrancesco web site on the American tradition of celebrating a day we call Thanksgiving. Just as we in America may have only a vague understanding of National Holidays celebrated in other countries, our relatives in Italy may desire to know more about this special day.

The Mayflower  
The Mayflower

This holiday may have had its roots in 1619 when a group of 38 Englishmen arrived in a place that would become Virginia in the United States of America, and set aside a day of thanks for their safe passage. However the more traditional view is that it started in 1622 by the Pilgrims and William Bradford. Who were the Pilgrims and why did they leave England for a land that was foreign to them?

In 16th Century England there was growing discontent with the Church of England, which was the official church of that country. William Bradford, born on March 19, 1590 near Doncaster in Austerfield, Yorkshire, became a member of a group called the Separatist Church, since this group wanted to be separate from the Church of England.

  William Bradford
William Bradford
Another group, called the Puritans, wanted to remain with the Church of England but to change or “purify” it. When King James I began to persecute the Separatists in 1609, William Bradford was among many members of his congregation who fled to the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter the Netherlands, fearing war with Spain, allied with England and began to place pressure on the Separatists to show their support for King James I.

To retain their independence, the Separatists decided to establish a new colony, and set sail aboard the Mayflower in 1620 for America. They arrived at Provincetown Harbor, in what is now Massachusetts, and spent a dreadful, cold winter. By spring half of the colonists died from the cold, malnutrition, and disease. In the spring of 1621 William Bradford was selected to lead the new Plymouth colony. Under his leadership the “Pilgrims” as they were now called, began to build homes and raise crops. They set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the American Indians who lived along the east coast. The Pilgrims recognized that it was not only their economic system that allowed them to survive and prosper, but also their devotion to God. William Bradford is credited as the first to proclaim what we now view as Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and to thank Him for His blessings.

George Washigton  
George Washington
Ever since that time Thanksgiving has been a time for Americans to give thanks to God. In 1789, George Washington, our first President, issued a proclamation calling for a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for our material blessings and our freedom. (This was soon after our new nation and government was formed.) It was not until some 75 years later however that Thanksgiving became a yearly celebration.

  Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
It was in the middle of the Civil War between the North and the South, when Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, proclaimed that the last Thursday of Novembers should be set aside as a day of thanksgiving. He saw that even in the midst of a great war we still had many blessings, for which we must thank God.

In addition to its spiritual connotation, Thanksgiving has become a day of feasting. Many of the foods that appear on our tables on Thanksgiving Day were the food served by the Pilgrims.

The most well known of course is the traditional turkey. They also served fish, corn meal, squash, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey, radishes, cabbage, and carrots. Over the years other foods were added such as potatoes, cornbread, cranberry sauce, and of course pumpkin pie.

The traditional turkey

The New England Traditional Thanksgiving Menu

From left to right, top to bottom:
  1. Roast Turkey with Gravy
  2. New England Stuffing
  3. Mashed Potatoes
  4. Mashed Turnip
  5. Creamed Onions
  6. Cramberry Sauce
  7. Buttered Rolls
  8. Fresh Celery Sticks
  9. Pumpkin Pie
  10. Pumpkin Bread


A Cofrancesco Family Thanksgiving Day

  Frank Morico
Frank Morico

My father’s cousin Frank Morico, who is 89 years old, remembers his Italian family celebrating Thanksgiving when he was a child. His mother would always prepare a large meal, and it would be a time for all the family to gather at his parent’s home in Hamden, Connecticut, USA. The meal would combine Italian dishes such as lasagna, with turkey and all the “fixins”. He believes many Italian families also celebrated Thanksgiving in this way.

I can remember Thanksgiving dinners with my parents. Usually we would invite friends and relatives. My mother, whose English ancestor Roger Alling arrived in the New Haven Colony in 1638, would always prepare a turkey, and serve it with mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey dressing, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, creamed onions, and cranberry sauce. We would end the meal with pumpkin pie. In those days turkeys were typically much larger than the turkeys of today, and would not always fit in a kitchen oven. My father’s brother Frank had an Italian bakery, and at Thanksgiving his siblings would put their turkeys in the bread oven where they would roast all night.

My wife prepares Thanksgiving dinners that are similar to those of my mother. My wife’s paternal ancestor, George Pardee, immigrated to the New Haven Colony from England in 1644. Here are a few photographs taken over the years.

Thanksgiving dinner cir 1949
Thanksgiving dinner cir 1949
Mom at left, sister Dorothy at right, me in center

My father John Cofrancesco enjoying a turkey drumstick cir 1953
My father enjoying a turkey drumstick, about 1953

Thanksgiving dinner cir 1953
Thanksgiving dinner cir 1953
Sister Dorothy on left, Dad pours coffee while Mom watches

Thanksgiving 1987
Thanksgiving dinner 1987
Son Jon, Carol, son Paul, daughter Linda with our cat

To learn more...

 Link The History of Thanksgiving (

 Link A full guide about Thanksgiving recipes with a lot of useful tips (

Last Updated ( Sunday, 29 November 2009 )
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