Pilgrims' first thanksgiving

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The First Thanksgiving
It's important to remember the reasons why we celebrate
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Learn the history of the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, like Halloween, came from a celebration of the end of harvest season and has been around for many centuries in some form, if not millennia.  Over time, the celebration has changed in some places, and been forgotten entirely in others.  In the United States, the celebration has been split into two separate traditions.

The first is Halloween, which was not only a harvest celebration, but a way of appeasing and warding off spirits who could ruin crops.  The second is Thanksgiving, which takes place around a month later and is a means of giving thanks either to a god or gods for providing good crops, or to other people who have been generous with their bountiful harvests.

It was not intended for these harvests to be a religious holiday and in fact Thanksgiving Day is still considered secular, but some religions tend to co-opt this holiday to give thanks to their god, due to the original term Thanksgiving, which referred not to this holiday, but to a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated during good times.

The First Thanksgiving in the U.S.

Usually when people think of the first Thanksgiving, they think of the one between the Pilgrims and the Indians, as depicted in the painting above.  However, the first true Thanksgiving actually occurred roughly sixty years earlier in what later became St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States.  It was then, on September 8, 1565, that Pedro Menendez de Aviles led hundreds of Spanish settlers in what they called a Mass of Thanksgiving for their safe arrival to the New World, followed by a huge feast.

A similar celebration happened again 43 years later in the area that would eventually become Texas.  As with the first celebration, this one on April 30, 1598 was performed by Spaniards, this time led by Don Juan de Onate.

The First Traditional Thanksgiving

Roughly 54 years after that first celebration in Florida occurred, another similar celebration occurred in what would later become Virginia.  This time, on December 4, 1619 it was English settlers rather than Spanish.  These 38 settlers had arrived at a point roughly 20 miles north of the already established English settlement of Jamestown, settled in 1607.

Their charter required that each year on the date of their ship's landing a day of "Thanksgiving to God" woud be observed for his deliverance of them to this new home.  The place was called Berkeley Hundred.  Due to tensions between indians and pilgrims, which wiped out approximately 30 percent of the English settlers in Virginia, Berkeley Hundred was abandoned along with most other settlements and the settlers all gathered in Jamestown for greaters numbers.

By 1621 tension between at least some natives and settlers had eased and a huge celebration spanning several days occurred in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in which roughly 50 settlers and 90 indians took part.  The settlers killed fowl and the indians killed several deer and the groups celebrated together for a harvest celebration immediately after the 1621 harvest.  In the strictest sense, this was not a "Thanksgiving" celebration, but a combining of the Wampanoag indian and English settler harvest celebrations.

Moving Toward an Annual Celebration

Two years later in 1623 the Pilgrims held a true Thanksgiving, which at that time was a religious event, rather than a feast.  This usually occured when conditions improved after rough times such as drought.  Some presidents had an official "Thanksgiving Day" from time to time and some states held an official Thanksgiving holiday in their state in preceeding decades.

For many decades after this, the Thanksgiving celebration became an annual event, but was sporadic and scattered throughout the fall months from colony to colony.  It wasn't until more than two centuries later that Abraham Lincoln would create an annual national holiday in 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War.  This holiday was to be held annually on the last Thursday in November in the United States and it has been so ever since.

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