Tuesday, April 10, 2007
History Of American Thanksgiving
Ask any child what’s the Thanksgiving story and you would instantly know that Thanksgiving started with the Pilgrims coming to Plymouth, Massachusetts long long ago. This ‘long long ago’ is the year 1620, but who were the ‘Pilgrims’ ? Why did they come ? What did they do ? Well, before you get totally fazed out, here’s the Thanksgiving story for you:

The ‘Pilgrims’ are as much associated with Thanksgiving as Santa is to Christmas. In 1609, a group of Puritans, who called themselves ‘Separatists’ fled England, unable to conform to the English Church and the religious persecutions prevailing in England. They then moved to Holland and lived there for quite a few years until they could manage to finance a trip to the New World. In 1620, they set sail for the New World in a ship called the Mayflower and on reaching their destination, they settled in a town called Plymouth, Massachusetts. And yes, it is precisely because of this that the town Plymouth is so closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday ! And, every year during this Thanksgiving season, numerous people visit this town and make their own pilgrimages to check out where the Thanksgiving holiday began.

Now the first winter of the Separatists, more popularly the Pilgrims was so severe that only a handful of them survived the harsh, adverse and merciless winter months in Plymouth. After a phase of intense hunger, malady and declining hopes, a Native American named Squanto, who knew English well, brought back better days for the Pilgrims. He taught them how to plant different crops on their soil and various other ways of planting and harvest. The results of this were far-out—the Pilgrims had a first-rate, bountiful harvest in the following autumn. They had surplus food for the winter and learnt the ways of survival in the New World. The governor of the Pilgrims, William Bradford, then sought it best to celebrate their survival and glory with a sumptuous feast. So a grand feast followed and the Natives were also invited to be a part of their jubilation. The story goes as this that the feast continued for three days and was marked by wholesome recreation and entertainment.

This three-day feast held at Plymouth in 1621 by the Pilgrims (the colonists) and the Native Americans is often referred to as “The First Thanksgiving”. However, it is not known whether the Pilgrims called this a Thanksgiving celebration. They were, of course, thankful for the sudden change in their fortune, for their bountiful harvest, for the help they got from their Native American friends and many more; but in all probability, they did not observe this feast as a Thanksgiving feast. To these colonists, Thanksgiving meant the end of a period of fasting and prayer—a very solemn and sober occasion. Therefore, the grand and gala feast of 1621 was totally befitting to the Thanksgiving conventions of these Pilgrims.

Also, this feast was not repeated next year. So obviously it can’t be called the start of the Thanksgiving tradition. But two years later, in the year 1623, the Pilgrims or the English settlers again went through a bad patch due to a long drought and assembled to pray for the rains. Strikingly enough, it poured heavily the very next day and the Pilgrims felt the need to observe a real thanksgiving day to pay tribute and show their thankfulness to the divine forces ! This can be called the first thanksgiving, in the true sense of the term, from which the modern-day Thanksgiving germinated. And it is from this that the custom of associating good fortune with Thanksgiving spread like wildfire throughout New England.

Now, setting up a date for Thanksgiving was not easy. In the colonial times, Thanksgiving days were declared by the colonial governments and the churches in order to mark any special event or achievement or just to express thankfulness to the Almighty after some disaster. Then Thanksgiving came to be proclaimed by national leaders of the new United States of America to commemorate their military victory or triumph over any difficult situation. In 1777, during the American Revolution, the Continental Army led by General George Washington, stopped in the bitter chill of the Valley Forge to observe a day of Thanksgiving, which marked the nation’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga. This was America’s first Thanksgiving. Then in 1789, after being US’s first President, Washington declared November 26 of the running year as a national day of Thanksgiving.

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