Thanksgiving: Here and there, now and then

Where did it come from, what does it mean to us?

By Ralph Hardin

Anyone who grew up in America knows the story of the first Thanksgiving, learning the story in school or from family or in a book or on TV. Nearly 400 years ago in 1620, more than 100 people sailing in a ship called the Mayflower left England bound for the New World. Many of those on board were part of a religious group intent on separating from the Church of England, their beliefs outlawed in their home country. Because of the religious intent of their journey, these people referred to themselves as Pilgrims. They were bound for the temperate climes of the southeastern North American continent, what would eventually become the Carolinas or Virginia. Instead, their ship drifted further north, landing them in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. They eventually settled in an abandoned Native American village that they named Plymouth, as in “Plymouth Rock.” During their first year in the New World, the colonists did not fare well. They arrived at the start of winter, so they couldn’t plant crops. Most didn’t know how to hunt game and in were in fact afraid of the wilderness by which they found themselves surrounded. Half of the colonists died that first year. In all likelihood, the rest would have followed had it not been for the help of the local Wampanoag Indians. In exchange for protection against rival tribes, the Wampanoag allowed the colonists to live on their land and taught them how to grow indigenous crops, as the grain varieties they had brought from England were ill-suited for their new home. The natives also instructed the Pilgrims on how to hunt and fish. By the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims had adapted to their new home and decided to organize a special day of prayer and a three-day-long feast. They invited the natives, who brought a feast of their own upon joining the colonists. At the shared table, thus was held the first Thanksgiving. Well, that’s the one that “counts,” anyway. Though not as celebrated, similar harvest festivals were common in Europe for centuries. The idea wasn’t even unique to the New World in 1621. Other “days of thanksgivings” were common in the early American colonies, such as Jamestown, to celebrate safe arrival or a successful crop. Catholic colonists, mostly of Spanish origin, gave thanks to God in similar gatherings in what would become Texas in the mid-1500s. But Thanksgiving as a holiday goes back to the very origins of the nation. In 1789, Congress passed a resolution recommending a national day of thanksgiving. Days later, President George Washington named Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin,” making today Thanksgiving’s 226th birthday, even if it wasn’t celebrated as an annual tradition just yet. Other “thanksgiving” proclamations were issued sporadically in later years under different presidents or at the state level by various governors. Those thanksgiving bore little resemblance to the holiday we think of today, however. A thanksgiving was celebrated in 1776, for example, to celebrate national independence. Another was declared in 1815 by James Madison to celebrate the end of the War of 1812. It was the last nationwide Thanksgiving for 50 years. The whole “Pilgrims and Indians” lore traces its origins to 1841. That year, New England historian Alexander Young published a book containing a letter from pilgrim Edward Winslow describing the three-day event in 1621. Young included a footnote describing the event as “the first Thanksgiving.” Young assumed (mistakenly) that the days of thanksgiving celebrated in the United States and national and state levels traced back to the Pilgrims. The idea was passed down as a story of trial and good fortune to those immigrating to America, and the connection to the Plymouth Colony has stuck ever since. President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863 that cemented Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, a tradition that has held (except from 1939 to 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the celebration to one week earlier to extend the holiday shopping season) ever since.


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