There have been festivals associated with the harvest ever since man began to till the soil. The Chinese celebrated such a feast thousands of years ago, and in our hemisphere, Native Americans and
colonists celebrated the harvest years before the Pilgrims arrived.
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving Day, as we now know it, traces its roots directly
back to 1621 and the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, they sailed to Holland in hopes of finding a better life. Instead, they found a language barrier, cultural differences, and economic hardships. Once again they uprooted their families, but this time it was for the promised freedom and prosperity of the New World.
The Speedwell sailed from Holland in July 1620 and met up with the Mayflower and more emigrants in Southampton. By the time they made it to Plymouth, England, the Speedwell had deteriorated so badly that it had to be left behind. Of 102 passengers that sailed on the Mayflower that September, 41 were Puritans, who referred to themselves as “Saints”— 17 men, 10 women, and
14 children. Eighteen were indentured servants, and the rest, called “Strangers” by the Puritans, were seeking economic opportunity, not religious freedom.
On November 10, land was sighted off Cape Cod. The Pilgrims chose a site on the mainland for colonization, and on December 11, they first set foot in the deserted Indian town of Patuxet which would become Plymouth. (Three years of plague had exterminated the Indian population.) During a bleak winter filled with sickness and hardships, 47 members of the tiny community were buried in unmarked graves to prevent hostile Indians from knowing the number of dead.
The survivors’ first harvest was a joyous occasion. A three-day festival of Thanksgiving replaced both Christmas and New Year’s for these Puritan settlers. Their difficult living conditions left them little time or resources, and their religious beliefs also discouraged merrymaking, especially on traditional feast days which the established church had observed. Since God had allowed them to survive the winter, Thanksgiving seemed to them to be a more fitting celebration.
In 1789, George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln declared in 1863 that Thanks Giving Day be held annually on the last Thursday of November. The American traditions of Thanksgiving are steeped in sym bowls of our first settlers. And don’t forget your own family traditions, whether it’s Aunt Nellie’s candied yams or grandmoth er’s china gravy boat. It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them.