An American Tradition

By Paul R. Huard

August 1, 2008 4 min read


The history of Thanksgiving comes together in November

By Paul R. Huard

Creators News Service

It is one of the most popular holidays in the United States, celebrated by food, football and a hearty helping of family guests.

However, Thanksgiving is also one of our national holidays rooted in American history, as much a part of the story of our national founding as President's Day or the Fourth of July.

From the beginning, it was considered more than an excuse to consume a good meal. It was also a day with heavy spiritual overtones, with an emphasis on prayer and thanksgiving to God as well as turkey and stuffing.

What many regard as the nation's first Thanksgiving took place in December 1621 when the Pilgrims, a Protestant separatist group that left England in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity in America, held a three-day feast to celebrate their first harvest.

However, the history of Thanksgiving goes much further back than Plymouth and 1621, Jennifer Monac, spokeswoman for the Plimoth Plantation historical site and museum on historical spelling in Plymouth, Mass, said.

"In fact, people across the world from every culture have been celebrating and giving thanks for thousands of years," Monac said. "In this country, long before English colonists arrived, native people celebrated many different days of thanksgiving."

"Strawberry Thanksgiving" and "Green Corn Thanksgiving" were just two of kinds of celebrations for the Wampanoag and other Indians that showed gratefulness for the bounty of the earth, she said.

According to accounts from the times, the local Wampanoag Indians, who were friendly to the newcomers, had furnished seeds and taught the Pilgrim farmers how to plant corn. Consequently, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day to celebrate God's agricultural blessing on the Pilgrims because the harvest was successful.

The celebration brought together the colonists and the Indians, who were led by their chief Massasoit. The colonists provided water fowl, wild turkey and fish. The Indians contributed deer to the feast.

Historians believe that the Pilgrims spend a good deal of the day in prayer and singing hymns. However, what is clear is the Pilgrims did not call the 1621 feast "Thanksgiving."

A day of "thanksgiving" was very different for the colonists, who considered one a celebration appropriate for an extraordinary event. Some historians say the Pilgrims actually had their first thanksgiving in the summer of 1623 to celebrate rains that ended a long drought.

Thanksgiving Day did not become a national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving -- a decision he hoped would remind Americans during the U.S. Civil War to count their blessings as the nation's worst war raged on.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month to encourage earlier holiday shopping, never on the occasional fifth Thursday. His 1939 decision was as much an attempt at economic stimulus as a call for national prayer and celebration.

In 1941, Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, although during some years it is not the last Thursday in November.

(c) Creators News Service

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