Though the Spanish, English and Dutch explorers began staking their claims in the New World of the Americas, it was the voyage of the Mayflower from England in 1620 that is remembered as the traditional Thanksgiving origin. Thanksgiving is a holiday about overcoming severe hardships to the promises that lie ahead.
About 100 people, part of a Christian sect that was fleeing persecution, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. The port was the town of Plymouth and (where they landed about 90 days later, was through honor called Plymouth. It was a rough voyage on a crowded boat that was not intended for carrying passengers.
The original destination was Virginia under a work contract. By hook and crook, the destination shifted to the area slightly north of Cape Cod. Only about a third of the passengers were Puritans but history often refers to the Puritans that landed at Plymouth.
Landing that far north in late November was hardly inviting for these new settlers. They continued living on the Mayflower through the winter. They ferried to land for food, supplies, and construction of the settlements. From 1620 to 1621, nearly half of the settlers died of lung fever and scurvy. The settlers were called the Pilgrims.
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and shared with 90 natives whom the settlers originally had called savages. The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. There was no Black Friday. It was three days of eating meats and sharing the fruits and grains of the harvest.
According to Edward Winslow’s accounts of the Thanksgiving meal of 1621:
Four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of fowl – with waterfowl like ducks and geese being most likely from such a bountiful shoot. Hunters could position themselves in marsh grass and fire at scores of birds floating on the water. It wasn’t until 1863, after two years of Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. It would takes place every November on the fourth Thursday.
Of course, in 1863, the country was still split and fighting for separation or unity. The tumultuous aftermath left many different variations and traditions of Thanksgiving. One tradition that was revised was when Thanksgiving took place and that was declared by succeeding Presidents. The popular consensus was the last Thursday of November. It was only changed back to the 4th Thursday after the depression of 1929. Thanksgiving is celebrated the last Thursday of November.
So there was about a 250 year split until Thanksgiving was declared an American national holiday. President George Washington did declare the first Thanksgiving Day but many presidents that followed didn’t really follow the formula. Basically, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November, which is usually the last Thursday.
What America follows is often different elsewhere. In French Canada, Thanksgiving is an autumn feast in early October. In Australia, it is celebrated on Wednesday, not Thursday. Thanksgiving, currently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November by federal legislation in 1941 (about 2 weeks before United States entered World War II), and has been an annual tradition in the United States by presidential proclamation since 1863.
Unofficially, New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade heralds the upcoming Christmas season as Santa Claus concludes the parade.
Bridging the first autumn feast of the pilgrims in 1621 and the contemporary traditions of Thanksgiving has seen many troubled waters, especially through wars overseas. Nonetheless, it is a day where families and friends join together and share a great holiday meal and conversation. I don’t think any of Thanksgiving’s originators would have imagined Black Friday, where lines of people wait for stores to open.
Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, though many give blessing to the Lord. It is a time of labor’s rewards and togetherness. Future generations will have forgotten the harvests of Autumn in lieu of stronger commercial and economic ties. That will be a shame. The world has forgotten that the original feast was 3 days, with no ties to Christmas. We forget so easily. Enjoy Thanksgiving! Eat healthy and responsibly.