What most people refer to as the "First Thanksgiving," of the Puritan Pilgrims, was really not a thanksgiving at all. A true Thanksgiving for the New Englanders consisted of a day of solemn prayer and fasting. Rather, the well-known feast shared by the Puritan pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians was a "harvest festival," celebrated when the pilgrims had had a bountiful harvest (after much teaching and help from the Indians) in the autumn of 1621. Moreover, this celebration was not the first of its kind. The pilgrims were observing customs as they had in their native home of England, and customs they had learned during their stay in Holland. Many other civilizations held such festivals as well, long before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. The ancient Greeks and Romans honored the gods and goddesses of the harvest (and also originated the myth of the cornucopia or horn of plenty), the Jewish celebrated the Feast of the Tabernacles, harvest feasts were observed in other European countries, and the Chinese held a Festival of the Harvest Moon.
Although it is impossible to say when and where there was an actual "First Thanksgiving," what some refer to as the beginning of our present celebration actually took place after the Pilgrims had been suffering through a drought during the summer of 1623, and Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer. When a long rain came soon afterward, the governor then proclaimed a thanksgiving celebration on November 29. This Pilgrim observance has been designated the beginning of our Thanksgiving holiday due to its distinct characteristics; traditions of prayer, and of feasting and family reunion, and proclamations by civil authorities. These traditions grew from New England to other states and were adopted for various reasons, but most often included elements of the Pilgrim festival, and have shaped the holiday that we now celebrate.
TRADITIONS OF PRAYER:
Since its "beginning" in 1623, the Thanksgiving holiday has been observed in America for many different occasions, and some years was not celebrated at all. However, throughout its evolution, Thanksgiving has most often been celebrated, as its name suggests, with prayer and giving thanks. The harvest season has always been a time for people and communities to reflect upon the blessings they have been given, and thank God for their prosperity.
TRADITIONS OF FEASTING AND FAMILY REUNION:
Traditional Thanksgiving customs also include the gathering of family, usually for a large dinner. Perhaps not as large a feast as the one held for three days in Plymouth that fed approximately 150 pilgrims and Indians, but one of significant proportions in comparison to other meals. The Pilgrim feast consisted of many items that may not be seen as traditional today, such as eel, shellfish, oysters, and boiled pumpkin. They had no cows, and therefore no milk, butter, or cheese, and no bread, except that made from corn, because the stores of flour had previously been used. There were ducks, geese, and partridges in the area which, along with several deer, served as a main dish. It is interesting to note that, although there were wild turkeys, there is no evidence that turkey was a part of the feast. Notwithstanding the fact that the Pilgrim festival was quite different from those celebrated today, the food we see on our Thanksgiving table, including the customary turkey, often has stemmed from other early harvest festivals. These festivals were prepared for weeks and consisted of wild turkey, chicken and other fowl, as well as mutton, pork, or beef, bread, greens, corn, berries, winter vegetables- such as squash, turnips, and potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple butter, pickled pears and peaches, a variety of jellies and jams, and, of course, elaborately made pies of every kind! Plum pudding, which is a rich cake made from flour, suet, sugar and spices and studded with currants and raisins, was the finishing touch to the dinner. The tables were adorned with the best china and polished silver to be used by the adults and honored guests, while tin or earthenware was used by younger participants. Similar customs as these have continued to grace Thanksgiving tables for centuries.
Although the dinner was the high point of the holiday celebration in early New England, as the house began to fill with luscious aromas from the kitchen, it also filled with people. Families began to gather for days beforehand, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins visiting, children returning from college or work in other cities, and daughters or sons bringing home their future spouses. The children quickly began games of sport (perhaps the beginning of the NFL), and the days were filled with dancing and frolicking, sleigh rides, and skating parties. Such was the custom then, such was the custom for the pioneers when they moved west, and such, we see, has the custom been cherished since.
TRADITIONS OF PROCLAMATIONS BY CIVIL AUTHORITIES:
The familiar holiday known today is also a result of the effort of a noble woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Northwood; or Life North and South, who later became the editor of Lady's Book and Magazine. For twenty years, the Lady's Book was the most widely distributed periodical in the United States, and in it each year, Mrs. Hale included an editorial proclaiming her position as to the desirability of a nationally proclaimed thanksgiving day much like the one celebrated in New England. It is believed that Sarah Hale included so much information about thanksgiving each November so as to make the holiday a familiar household custom. As well as editorials, Mrs. Hale wrote letters each year to the governors of every state and territory. Many of these men responded positively to her suggestion that they proclaim the fourth Thursday of November a day of thanksgiving, and if the governor did not, often the influential Presbyterian church would issue proclamations in their place.
There were many Americans in every state who saw the value in Sarah Hale's request, and so the idea of a national thanksgiving holiday began to take root. Although a thanksgiving holiday was celebrated by almost every state in the north, Mrs. Hale wanted something more. It was in 1863, after President Lincoln had proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in celebration of the victory of the North during the Civil War, that Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to the President requesting "...to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival..." which would no longer be forgotten or overlooked.
Her request was granted on October 3 when Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November 1863 be proclaimed a celebration, not for victory on the battlefield, but for giving thanks for the "...blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies." In 1864, Lincoln once again proclaimed the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving celebration. Unfortunately, he was assassinated before any other proclamations were made, but the presidents who followed have honored the precedent he set and a proclamation has been made each year since.
The Thanksgiving legacy has been alive for hundreds of years. The traditions we see in our homes and communities today have progressed through celebrations of harvest, thankfulness for peace, and the endeavors of noble men and women. It is made up of the stories and celebrations of those who believe that gratitude for blessings is a virtue all must possess, nurture, and never abandon.
Appelbaum, Diana Karter (1984). Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York: Facts on File Publications.
Barth, Edna (1975). Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of Thanksgiving Symbols. New York: Clarion Books.
Brouillet, Frank B.; Chow, Cheryl; Burton, Warren H.; & Bill, Willard E. (1987). Teaching about Thanksgiving. [On-line]. Available: ftp://ftp.halcyon.com/pub/FWDP/Americas/tchthnks.txt
Sechrist, Elizabeth Hough & Woolsey, Janette. (1957). It's Time For Thanksgiving. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company.
Shareware & More by Grace Sylvan: http://www.gamesdomain.com/tigger/thanks/index.html.
Billy Bear: http://www.worldvillage.com/kids/bilybear/thanksgv/clipart.htm.