ThanksGiving: The American Tradition

The celebration of Thanksgiving in America probably derived from the harvest-home ceremonies originally held in England. These were days reserved to thank God for plentiful crops and a bountiful harvest. Accordingly, this holiday still takes place late in the Fall Season, after crops have been gathered. Most recently, Thanksgiving Day in the United States is usually a family affair, complete with sumptuous dinners and happy reunions; however, it is also traditionally a time for serious religious contemplation, church services and prayer.

The first observance of Thanksgiving in America was entirely religious in nature and involved no form of feasting. On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation on the James River...a location now known as Charles City, Virginia. The charter of the group required that the day of arrival be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to God.

The first Thanksgiving in the New England area was celebrated in 1621, a little less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had settled in America. Contrary to popular belief, however, Plymouth Rock was not the site of the original colony. When the Pilgrims landed there on December 11, 1620 in search of fresh provisions, they were greeted with hostility by the natives in the immediate vicinity and put back out to sea almost at once. A little further south, they came across Cape Cod, a much more favorable anchorage than Plymouth had proved to be and a native population which was more cordial in nature. Weary from their voyage and in no mood to hunt down the site mandated by their charter (which was considerably further down the coast and somewhere within the limits of the original grant of the Virginia Company of Plymouth), the Pilgrims decided to establish their colony within this friendly territory.

That initial harsh Massachusetts winter killed approximately one-half of the original 102 colonists. In the following Spring of 1621, the Indians, led by two braves named Samoset (of the Wampanoag Tribe) and Squanto (of the Patuxtet Tribe), taught the survivors how to plant corn (called "maize" by the natives) and how to catch alewives (a variety of the herring family) in order that the fish might be used as a fertilizer to growing pumpkins, beans and other crops. Samsoset and Squanto also instructed the Pilgrims in the arts of hunting and angling. By that Summer, despite poor crops of peas, wheat and barley, a good corn yield was expected and the pumpkin crop was bountiful. In early Autumn, to recognize the help afforded the colonists by the Indians and to give thanks for having survivied, Governor William Bradford arranged for a harvest festival. Four men were sent "fowling" after ducks and geese. Turkey may or may not have been a part of the forthcoming meal since the term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to mean any type of wild fowl.

The festival lasted three days. Massasoit, local sachem or chief of the Wampanoag, together with 90 Indians from the various Eastern Woodlands Tribes, participated in the ceremony. There can be little doubt that the majority of the feast was most likely furnished by the indigenous population. It is certain that they provided venison. The remainder of the meal, eaten outdoors around large tables, also probably included fish, berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, lobster, dried fruit, clams, wild plums and cornbread. The celebration of this first New England Thanksgiving is believed to have taken place sometime between September 21 and November 9.

The event, however, was a one-time celebration. It was not repeated the following year, nor was it intended to be an annual festival. It was not until 55 years later than another Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed, when the Governing Council of Charlestown, Massachusetts convened on June 20, 1676 to weigh how to best express thanks for the good fortune that had secured the establishment of their community. By unamimous vote, Edward Rawson (the Clerk of the Council) was instructed to announce June 29 as a Day of Thanksgiving. Yet again, this proved to be only a one-time event. In a similar fashion, the Day of Thanksgiving proclaimed in October of 1777 was also not intended to be a perpetual annual observance. Although it marked the first time that all 13 colonies were to join in such a celebration, it was equally a commemoration of the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. Nevertheless, over time, the notion of a Thanksgiving Day began to spread to other New England colonies.

In 1789, President George Washington issued a general proclamation which named November 26 as a Day of National Thanksgiving. Many were opposed to the idea. There was an air of discord among the Colonies and a feeling that the hardships of a handful of Pilgrims hardly warranted a national holiday. In that same year, the Protestant Episcopal Church announced that the first Thursday in November would be a standard annual day for giving thanks. Yet, for many years, the United States had no regular national Thanksgiving Day (although some states independently observed a yearly Thanksgiving holiday). By 1830, New York had an official State Thanksgiving Day and other Northern States quickly followed suit. In 1855, Virginia became the America's first Southern State to adopt the custom.

It was largely due to the efforts of one Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) that America eventually recognized, on a united national level, the feast known as Thanksgiving Day. Editor of "Boston Ladies' Magazine," and later contributing to "Godey's Lady's Book," Hale dedicated 40 years of her life to a campaign which promoted the establishment of a National Day of Thanksgiving. Hale is credited with persuading Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holdiay in the United States. In 1863, President Lincoln decreed that the holiday was to be observed on the last Thursday of every November. (Hale...born in Newport, New Hampshire...was a prolific writer whose major surviving work is the children's poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb.")

For the 75 years which followed, each President in office formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on that last Thursday but, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set it for one week earlier. The President's reason for this change was that he wanted to help businesses by lengthening the shopping period prior to Christmas. Public uproar against this decision caused the celebration of Thanksgiving to be moved back to its original date two years later. In 1941, it was finally ruled by Congress that the fourth Thursday of November would be deemed an observation of Thanksgiving Day and that it would be a legal federal holiday.

Of the 300 million turkeys raised for consumption each year, one is chosen to be sent to the White House. There, the turkey is granted clemency from death and receives the President's pardon. This lucky bird is then sent to a farm where it lives out the rest of its days in peace, free from the threat of being the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving Dinner.