Most of us have experienced being with family and friends at Thanksgiving, but have we really thought about how thankful we should be during this time of year? As we think back to the beginnings of this holiday, we are able to see just how blessed we are today.
We currently celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, and this has been an annual tradition since 1863 in the United States. Historically, Thanksgiving was a religious observance to give thanks to God for our blessings. However, today Thanksgiving consists of football, turkey dinner, pumpkin pie, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and plans for shopping the following day in order to get all the good bargains.
History tells us that the first Thanksgiving came about as a celebration feast of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. These Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England in 1620 aboard a ship called the Mayflower, hoping to escape religious persecution in their own land. After setting sail in September, they sighted land, settling at Plymouth, Massachusetts in December of 1620. Their first winter in a strange land was very severe, and many of their number died from the harsh conditions in the “new world.” However, the local Native Americans were friendly toward them and helped to get them through the winter by sharing their food and teaching the new settlers how to grow and store various foods.
By the next winter, 1621, the Pilgrims had raised enough food to stay alive, and decided to have a community feast. This was a harvest feast in which they invited their Native American friends to celebrate with them. Their foods consisted of Indian corn, barley, pumpkins, waterfowl, deer and fish. It was possible that wild turkey was eaten; however, the term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to designate all types of wild fowl. These early settlers could not have lived if their Indian friends had not introduced them to such things as turtles, oysters, shad, codfish and clams.
By their third year in Plymouth, the Pilgrims did not have a good harvest due to a drought. Because of these conditions, their governor, William Bradford, ordered a day of prayer and fasting; rain happened to follow soon, and they celebrated. This celebration was declared on November 29 of that year, with a day of thanksgiving proclaimed. And this date is thought to be the true beginning of our present Thanksgiving Day.
In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a National Day of thanksgiving. However, some of the colonists disagreed with this because they did not think that the hardships of a “handful” of pilgrims should dictate a national holiday! Then, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. This was due to Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was America’s first successful women’s magazine. Hale campaigned forty years for Thanksgiving to be established as a national holiday, and did not rest until that happened!
After Lincoln, every president has proclaimed Thanksgiving as a holiday, even though the date has been changed several times. President Franklin Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving on the next to last Thursday in order to have a longer Christmas shopping season. However, this caused controversy with the public, and the president moved the date back to its original time of the last Thursday in the month. Then, in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally proclaimed by Congress as a legal holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
As we celebrate our Thanksgiving this year, many of us will have turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberries or cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. We can thank the Native Americans for being the first to use cranberries as food, since introducing them to the starving English settlers in Massachusetts. The turkey is mentioned in many accounts of the new colony in America as being part of the “fowl” served at the first Thanksgiving. Pumpkin is also mentioned as part of the first Thanksgiving, but not as we know it today. The Pilgrims ate pumpkin that was boiled, but not in pie as we do. By the time of their harvest celebration, they had run out of most of their staples, including flour to make something similar to our pie crust. The settlers also made a type of fried bread from corn, but had no milk, potatoes or butter. It is hard for us to imagine cooking a Thanksgiving dinner without some of these items.
This Thanksgiving as we sit at a table full of delicious foods, let us not forget to thank God for all we have, and to remember how this time of celebration came about. We also need to remember those who are keeping watch on our behalf, allowing us to have freedom to enjoy another Thanksgiving. We should all remember to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.