The origin of Thanksgiving
Every year many Americans set aside the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate a meal of thanks. Today Thanksgiving is a national holiday; however, it did not start out as such. The origin of Thanksgiving in the United States dates back hundreds of years, beginning with the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621.
On September 6, 1620 a ship called the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England. 102 people were on board; of these, forty-four were Pilgrims and called themselves "Saints." They referred to the other sixty-six as "Strangers." Their destination was the New World.
The trip across the sea lasted 65 days. Due to the cold and damp conditions, many on board became sick and at least one person died. Land was finally sighted off Cape Cod on November 10, 1620.
The group arrived at Plymouth (which had been named by Captain John Smith in 1614) and decided to settle there. A meeting was held and the "Saints" and "Strangers" decided to settle together. They signed the Mayflower Compact, which was America's first document of civil government and the first to mention self-government. This agreement guaranteed equality between the two groups.
The First Year
Plymouth offered a fine harbor and nearby stream for fish. However, the first winter was very hard on the Pilgrims. The cold and snow prevented the Pilgrims from building their settlement. Many died during the harsh months. Less than 50 people survived the first winter in the New World.
In March 1621, the weather began to warm up. One day that month, an Indian brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. His name was Samoset and he was an Abnaki Indian. Samoset called out "Welcome!" in English to the group. A few days later, he returned with his friend Squanto.
Squanto spoke more English than Samoset. He taught the Pilgrims many survival techniques. He showed them how to tap the maple trees for sap. He pointed out which plants were poisonous and which ones could be used as medicines. He taught the Pilgrims to plant corn by heaping the earth into small mounds and using fish as fertilizer. He showed them how to plant other vegetables as well.
A Plentiful Harvest
Due in large part to Squanto's guidance, the harvest in October was plentiful. The Pilgrims had enough corn, beans, barley, pumpkins and other food to put away for the winter. There was much to celebrate that year: the Pilgrims had built homes, raised enough food for the winter months, and made peace with the neighboring Indians.
William Bradford, the governor of the Pilgrims, declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the bountiful harvest. The Pilgrims invited Squanto and others to join them. Chief Massasoit and 90 other Indian braves came to the festival. The feasting and games lasted for three days.
The Pilgrims provided fowl for the feast. The Indians brought deer. Corn and cranberries were also served. The Indians showed the Pilgrims their bow and arrow skills; the Pilgrims in turn demonstrated their use of the musket. It was a three-day celebration. During the origin of Thanksgiving, feasting and games abounded as the two groups enjoyed each other's company.
Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday
Thanksgiving celebrations continued during the years of colonial America. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual tradition. Then in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November each year.
In 1988, a Thanksgiving ceremony was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Its purpose was to celebrate the origin of Thanksgiving in America. The role of the Indians in the first Thanksgiving was publicly acknowledged.
Families throughout the United States continue to celebrate Thanksgiving each year. This national holiday provides an opportunity to give thanks and spend time with loved ones. Remembering the history and origin of Thanksgiving offers a look into the past. It helps us appreciate the early days in America and the development of the country.