This year, let us take the time to learn about the history of Thanksgiving. With this new understanding, we can share gratitude with family, friends, and neighbors all year long.

Giving Thanks – 400 years later

As the warm summer days draw shorter and the nights catch a chill, we welcome fall with all that this season has to offer – cozy hugs, pumpkin spice lattes, and scary movies make it easier to say goodbye to the summer. Come November, one very special day manages to spur weeks of preparation and excites us in anticipation of its celebration.

Thanksgiving, a staple holiday in the United States, brings with it family, friends, and, of course, food – and lots of it. But while we cook the turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes – ensuring there will be enough for leftovers – and feast unlike any other day, let us pause and reflect on the meaning of this national holiday and the reason that we still celebrate it 400 years after the first Thanksgiving. 

In school, we were taught a shortened version of the Thanksgiving story – you know, the Mayflower, Native Americans, and pilgrims, that ended in a feast. But revisiting the history of Thanksgiving will give us new appreciation this November 25 as we gather around the table with family and friends.

The Story of the First Thanksgiving

In September 1620, 102 passengers set sail from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower in search of a new home. On board this small ship were religious separatists who fled England because of the constraints against their religious freedom. They were joined by others who dreamt of self-government and economic success in the New World. After 66 treacherous days at sea, the pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod – farther north than their intended destination. They searched for a place to settle, and on December 16, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor near what later became Plymouth, Massachusetts. The pilgrims remained on the ship for the winter months. By March of 1621 only half of them had survived, and they began the task of establishing a settlement. Their efforts were hampered by harsh conditions, malnutrition, and disease. 

The outlook for the beleaguered settlers appeared bleak until the unexpected arrival of Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. A native American who had been taken captive by English sailors and sold into slavery in England, Squanto escaped and fled back to his homeland, having learned to speak English. 

He came to live with the pilgrims and taught them to grow Indian corn, fish, scavenge, tap maple trees, and much more. Another crucial contribution he made to the settlers’ survival and safety was his help in forging an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe.

The first corn crop in Plymouth was harvested in November 1621. This success of the relationship between European colonists and Native Americans called for a celebration. Governor William Bradford organized a feast, which we now remember as the first Thanksgiving.

How it became an Annual Holiday 

Although the annual tradition did not continue consistently following the initial celebration, in 1789, George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation, calling upon Americans to give thanks for the successful war of independence and the ratification of the new constitution.

Interestingly enough, it didn’t become a national holiday until much later. Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” launched a campaign in 1827 for Thanksgiving to be so recognized. Thirty-six years later, President Abraham Lincoln acted on her request. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, he issued a proclamation calling on Americans to ask God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” 

In Conclusion

As we sit down this Thanksgiving, take a moment to reflect on the rich history behind this day. Just as the Indians and Pilgrims came together to give thanks, we can set aside our differences and find common ground. If living together and celebrating in gratitude was possible in 1621, it is possible in 2021!

Please comment below with your favorite Thanksgiving traditions.

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