The History of Thanksgivingby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the history of Thanksgiving.
All over the world, people celebrate holidays. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "Holiday" this way: "A day free from work that one may spend at leisure, especially a day on which custom or the law dictates a halting of general business activity to commemorate or celebrate a particular event." or, "A religious feast day; a holy day." We look at our holidays today and think of the first definition. Not to long ago, however, people looked at their holidays and thought of the second definition. Thanksgiving was one of those holidays.
When the colonists, or pilgrims and we call them, landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, it was the beginning of winter and they had very little time to prepare anything to shelter them. Many stayed on the ship until a large communal house was made. "Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, less that 50 survived the first winter."1
With spring came an Indian name Samoset who not only spoke English taught to him by some fishermen, but also miraculously introduced them to an Indian named Squanto who spoke even better English. Squanto, himself, had been taken from his village by some slave traders who brought him to England. There he learned English and eventually made it back to his village only to find that it had been destroyed by a white man's disease. (Some time later the Pilgrims landed and built their town on top of the ruins of Squanto's village.) Squanto stayed with the Pilgrims and showed them many invaluable things.
"It can be said that they would not have survived without his help. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to tap the maple trees for sap. He taught them which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers. He taught them how to plant the Indian corn by heaping the earth into low mounds with several seeds and fish in each mound. The decaying fish fertilized the corn. He also taught them to plant other crops with the corn."2
By the end of the first year, the pilgrims had a bountiful harvest and decided to share it with their Indian friends. This feast that lasted several days is known today as the first Thanksgiving, although "this feast was never repeated, so it can't be called the beginning of a tradition, nor was it termed by the colonists or 'Pilgrims' a Thanksgiving Feast."2 Even so we have fashioned our own Thanksgiving after the Pilgrims' harvest feast.
Years after the Pilgrims' first feast, George Washington, as our first president, proclaimed a national thanksgiving holiday. "In 1817 New York State had adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day."4 "Thanksgiving did not become an annual national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 proclamation."5
"... I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union."
After that every president since has proclaimed an annual national Thanksgiving. President Franklin Roosevelt moved the thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season. Congress decided after that to permanently fixed Thanksgiving to the last Thursday of the month. Roosevelt's decision was clearly unpopular.
During the pilgrims' feast, "Governor William Bradford sent 'four men fowling' after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain that they had venison. The term 'turkey' was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl."6 They probably also did not have breads and pies because flour was scarce. Their English grains did not grow well in American soil. They did however have corn, which became their staple in their diet. With this they were able to make pudding and beer, which was their staple drink.
For most people today, Thanksgiving seems to be an extended weekend for gluttony and watching football. The Pilgrims also had games and contests over three days. But instead of being just entertainment for overweight spectators, they participated to celebrate life and demonstrate the brawn and skill of Pilgrims and Indians.
Even though Thanksgiving has changed and is vastly different than the "first Thanksgiving" that we fashion our feast after, we can still come together to thank "our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens... with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience...." Only then can we truely enjoy the turkey!
up1Thanksgiving on the Net. "Thanksgiving."
up2Thanksgiving on the Net. "Thanksgiving."
up3The First Thanksgiving. "The First Thanksgiving."
up4Thanksgiving on the Net. "Thanksgiving."
up5Pilgrim Hall Museum. "Bradford's Prayer of Thanks
up6 However, compare with: Bangs, Jeremy, "Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce," <http://www.sail1620.org/discover_feature_thanksgiving_on_the_net_roast_bull_with_cranberry_sauce_part_1.shtml>
"Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
--William Bradford Ye Governor of Ye Colony
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