Thanksgiving, a holiday celebrated annually in the United States of America on the fourth Thursday in November of each year, celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year.
The first documented thanksgiving ever to take place was conducted by Spanish and French invaders on Native land in the 16th century. The Spanish explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilé, invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival in 1565. Such feasts and thanksgiving services became routine in the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607.
The first permanent settlement at Jamestown held an official thanksgiving feast in 1610. Additionally, when 38 British settlers reached the Berkley Hundred, a site located on the banks of Virginia’s River James on December 4th, 1619, they read a proclamation designating the date as ‘a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God’.
The most prominent historical thanksgiving event, however, is the one celebrated by the settlers at Plymouth in 1621. The Mayflower left Plymouth in September 1620, with 102 passengers on board. It was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, today known more commonly as ‘the Pilgrims’.
Most of the immigrants suffered greatly due to exposure from scurvy and outbreaks of different diseases. Only half of them lived to see the first spring in New England. In March, when the immigrants had all finally moved ashore, they were greeted by an Abenaki Indian. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe.
He had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. He had somehow managed to escape to London and reached his homeland via an exploratory expedition. During his journey, he had learned the immigrants’ language – English.
He taught the immigrants how to fish, cultivate and harvest maize, extract sap from the maple trees and avoid poisonous plants. Additionally, they also managed to forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe through Squanto’s efforts. The alliance lasted for more than 50 years. It is the only example of harmony between the European settler-immigrants and the Native tribes. Squanto succumbed to the plague a year later.
The first harvest of corn proved successful in November 1621. The colony’s Governor, William Bradford, organized a celebratory feast. He also invited the colony’s small group of Native allies the Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit.
The celebration lasted for three days. According to the chronicler, Edward Winslow, who was a separatist who traveled on the Mayflower with the rest of the immigrant pilgrims, Bradford had sent four men on a ‘fowling’ mission in preparation for the event. Meanwhile, the Wampanoag guests arrived at the feast bearing four deer. In total, there were 50 settlers and 90 Natives at the gathering.
According to historians, many of the dishes at the feast were prepared using traditional Native spices and cooking methods. The feast was cooked by four settler women (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White), their daughters and male and female servants; all of whom had miraculously survived their first winter, unlike their counterparts.
Plimoth Plantation Vice President James Baker, later said about the event, ‘The event occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (Sept. 29), the traditional time’.
Two other colonizers also provided their own personal accounts of the joint first feast between the Plymouth settlers and the land’s natives. Historical 17th-century accounts, however, do not record the feast as a ‘Thanksgiving’ event. Rather, it was a simple gathering that followed the first successful harvest. The meal did not include any of the traditional English cakes and sweetmeats as the settlers’ stock of sugar had by then been completely used up.
The second Thanksgiving celebration took place in 1623. It was preceded by a religious fast that followed a refreshing 14-day-long rain. Governor Bradford had called for the observance of the fast throughout the colony in the wake of a terrifying drought that threatened to spoil that year’s harvest.
The following rain had suddenly burst in on the people after a nearly catastrophic season of drought. According to calculations done by Rev. DeLoss, the celebration took place just one day before a supply ship arrived ashore.
Eventually, observing days of fasting and participating in thanksgiving feast(s) became a common (annual) occurrence in other colonies of New England as well. It was, however, in 1789 when President George Washington officially issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the National Government of the United States of America.
Since it was after the end of the American Revolution, he called upon the people to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors, Presidents John Adams and James Madison, also designated particular days of thanks during their presidencies.
It was not until 1817 that New York became the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. The American South, however, remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. In 1839, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday up by a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression.
The plan, nicknamed ‘Franskgiving’, was met with a derisive and united opposition. Finally, after much protest, the president was forced to reluctantly sign a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
In modern times, however, the traditional and annual Thanksgiving holiday is mired by controversy. There is disagreement on whether the feast at Plymouth was the first Thanksgiving celebration – or whether the Spaniards and the French, who came long before the first English settlers, should also be included in the count.
Others consider Thanksgiving to instead be a ‘national holiday of mourning’, as a celebration of the cultural genocide of the Native people after the English settlers colonized their land(s). Regardless of which opinion one supports, Thanksgiving is an event that is annually experienced by millions of people across the United States of America.