A Look at the First Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims
Pilgrims have become synonymous with Thanksgiving. It is almost impossible to think of Thanksgiving without also thinking of these early American colonists, dressed in black and white with their pilgrim caps. But who exactly were the Pilgrims?

Pilgrim is a generic term, referring to a person goes on a journey to visit a holy site: a pilgrimage. However, in American terminology it refers to a group of settlers who left England and came to Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts.
These Pilgrims were religious separatists from England. They were Puritans, who believed in the ultimate purification of the Church. Although England had broken away from the Catholic Church during the Reformation, it was believed by the Puritans that they had not completed the purifying of the Church, and that they still held onto too many pagan ideas and traditions held over from the Catholic Church.

The Puritans did not celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas, as they have no Biblical basis. They rejected any and all holy images, and thought that men should live a morally pure life of hard work. Their extreme beliefs were not welcome in England, and eventually these Pilgrims decided to leave England. It was not for America that they first went, however, but rather Holland.

After many years of living in Holland, it was decided by the Pilgrims that they should travel to the New World, and create their own colony based entirely on their own principles. The economy of Holland was falling at the time, and Pilgrim leaders also feared the influence of the Dutch on their English lifestyle. In the New World they would be able to create their own society from scratch.

The Pilgrims petitioned the current King of England, King James I (most famous for authorizing the English translation of the Bible that bears his name, the King James Version), for permission to settle in America. King James granted them this permission, and in 1620 they set sail for the New World.

The name of the Pilgrim ship is known almost universally, taught to us as school children. It was the Mayflower. The Mayflower was a fairly small ship, only 100 feet in length and about 25 in width. The ship carried over 100 people, including men, women, children and at least 2 dogs.

The Pilgrims in the New World
The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. They were the first permanent settlers of what is now New England. Although granted permission to settle in the area by King James, they were not officially chartered, and thus created their own government beginning with one of the most famous documents in early American history, the Mayflower Compact.

The Pilgrims landed on about November 21st, 1620. Coming at the end of harvest season, with a harsh winter ahead, the Pilgrims were not properly prepared for what was to come. In this incredibly harsh winter of 1620, the unexpecting Pilgrims found themselves with a struggle just to survive. Almost half of the original voyagers died that winter. Those that did live on to the next year did so with great difficulty, and only through the assistance of the Native Americans. Most prominent among these Native Americans helping the Pilgrims during their first winter were Squanto and Samoset.

Both Squanto and Samoset were no strangers to the English. Both had had contact with the English, and could speak some of the language Samoset, the first to make contact with the Pilgrims, was a chief of the Abenaki tribe of Maine, and had been in much contact with English fishermen there. Squanto had been kidnapped in 1605 and taken to England for 9 years. He eventually returned to the New World with John Smith, on one of his many return trips to England while leading the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

With the help of the natives, who were able to speak with them and also had access to food and knew how to survive in the harsh wilderness, half of the Pilgrims were able to struggle through the winter of 1620, and live to see the summer again in 1621.

The First Thanksgiving

Compared to the strife and heartache of the Pilgrims’ first winter in their new home, the year 1621 was certainly a year of plenty. Learning from the Indians, they were able to grow plenty of crops, learn about the new wildlife of the land for hunting, and feed themselves comfortably and easily.

By harvest time of 1621, the Pilgrims knew that they would have more than enough food to survive the winter, and to give thanks for the bounty they decided to celebrate with a feast. They invited the Indians who had been so helpful in helping them survive the winter of 1620 and in growing the bountiful harvest which they were celebrating. According to contemporary accounts, the chief and ninety of his men came to celebrate the three day feast with them.

On this first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Indians shared in many meals, consisting of a wide variety of foods both grown and hunted (most famously the wild turkey). They played many games, and just in general celebrated their friendship and bounty of the harvest. This event serves as the basis for our own Thanksgiving tradition. Aside from giving thanks for the harvest and for the year behind and ahead, we also use the Thanksgiving holiday as a time to remember our roots and the foundation of America.

The Thanksgiving Holiday
Contrary to popular belief, however, Thanksgiving was not made an annual holiday by the Pilgrims. While they did occasionally have Thanksgiving feasts (the next would be held in 1623), it was not seen as an annual tradition.

Over the years, Presidents such as George Washington would proclaim national days of Thanksgiving, however it was not a set-in-stone annual tradition, and even these Presidents would not proclaim one every year.

It was not until 1863 and the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving would become the annual celebration that it is today. Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday that would occur every year on the last Thursday of November.

This is actually a little bit later than when the original Thanksgiving would have been held, probably in the middle of October (closer to when Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada). The timing of Thanksgiving does however coincide fairly well with the original landing of the Mayflower.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the celebration of Thanksgiving was changed from the last Thursday of November to the 4th Thursday of November. In years where November had 5 Thursdays, it put the celebration to close to Christmas, and thus Roosevelt’s change.

Thanksgiving is one of the most important and popular holidays of American society. It is a true cultural milestone, marking family and community togetherness as well as pride in America and a reverence for its founding fathers.

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