Thanksgiving Day is coming soon, so I thought I would give you a quick history on how our Thanksgiving Holiday got its start and became such an important part of our national tradition. “Thanksgiving Day” has a very long and varied past if we look at its beginnings more closely. From the dawn of humanity, there has some sort of celebration of thanks, usually centered around some harvest feast or celebration of a war victory. Our own spiritual Jewish ancestors (like many ancient cultures of the time) celebrated specific days on which to give thanks, including the Jewish Feast of Pentecost which celebrated the Spring wheat harvest as well as the Jewish Feast of Booths, which celebrates the grapes, olives, and other crop harvests. Our own Christian Tradition centers around the Eucharist which in Greek means “Thanksgiving,” so in a sense we as Catholics have been celebrating a Thanksgiving Feast every Sunday for over 2000 years! Nothing new for us!
With regard to our own national holiday it must be known that a day set aside to “Give thanks” began long before our country became a nation and even territory. It began even before the Pilgrims made their famous landing on Plymouth Rock! The original Spanish and French settlers, who first landed in this country, celebrated a day of thanks often during the 1500s when the New World was still up for grabs. As more and more people settled, some form of religious thanksgiving services became routine in the Commonwealth of Virginia with the settlement of Jamestown back in 1610 as well as the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans around 1630s. It is still debated as to who started a regular “Day of Thanksgiving” tradition. Very likely these were a combination of both religious and civil celebrations. This said, it was the Pilgrims who came on the Mayflower and who landed on Plymouth Rock who made our official “Thanksgiving Holiday” famous, probably because of the horrible hardships they first endured, which gave them as strong reason to be thankful!
You should know that the Pilgrims were not Puritans but another group of the separatist movement. Although both the Puritans and Pilgrims were of the Calvinists religious tradition, both declared their independence from England and from each other for different religious reasons, thus forging a life and a colony on their own in the New World. History points to Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who was part of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn. He also served as an interpreter for them having learned English during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit (Massachusetts), had also given those first colonists food during their severe winters when supplies from England ran short. For the Pilgrims, the year following their first severe winter which nearly wiped them out, built better homes and planted their own food which was provided for by the native people. By that Fall, they celebrated their first harvest meal which was around 1621 and in doing so, shared their bounty with their Native American friends. The first Thanksgiving meal included 50 Pilgrims, (all who remained of the original 100) and 90 Native Americans. The feast was cooked by the 4 surviving women (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster and Susanna White) along with several other young daughters and male and female servants. (Some things about cooking never change!) The meal included things like fish (cod/eel), venison, Indian corn, turkey, and other fowl. Not sure if sweet potatoes or pumpkin or squash were among the dishes. (Not sure if anyone would actually eat the sweet potatoes anyway! That’s my editorial comment.) All these dishes were not out of the question according to accounts written by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth and Edward Winslow who also claimed to have been witness to the meal.
It was William Bradford who probably set the stage for making “Thanksgiving” a “civil” holiday and not restricting it to just a religious celebration when in 1623, during a severe drought and following a time of prayer and fasting, there came a refreshing 14 day rain which saved the crop and prepared the way for a large harvest. That Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, Bradford declared that their colony celebrate a regular “Day of Thanks” for God’s blessing and divine mercy. Unlike the past, this came from a civil authority and so was noted on their colonial calendar as such.
Stay tuned! There is more to come that will bring more to-date on how and why we are called to give thanks! Words to live by: “What a world this could be if we would forget our troubles as easily as we forget our blessings!”