Thanksgiving Story

Nov. 27- Dec. 3, 03
VOL 122 NO. 42
Thanksgiving Story
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally the most traveled holiday of the year. Whether it is to the airport or across the country to a loved one’s home, more families will make trips to be together for Thanksgiving than any other holiday. Celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is an opportunity for families and loved ones to gather together and say prayers of thanks for years of blessings.

In most homes, turkey is the traditional dish for the Thanksgiving feast. In the U.S., about 280 million turkeys are sold for Thanksgiving celebrations. However, it is uncertain that turkey was a staple for the first Thanksgiving feast, held more than 300 years ago. The history of Thanksgiving is a blend of fact and myth. It is certain that a small ship called the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England, on Sept. 16, 1620. It was filled with more than 100 men, women and children, most of whom were Puritans who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in England and who hoped to find a better life in the New World. The Pilgrims, as these people came to be called, set foot on land on Dec. 11, 1620 and began to establish the colony of Plymouth.

The Pilgrim’s first winter was bitter cold and completely devastating; by the beginning of the following fall, 46 people of the original 102 who had sailed aboard the Mayflower had died. Yet, the harvest of 1621 was a plentiful one. With help from the Native Americans the Pilgrims grew an abundance of crops. The Native Americans also taught the Pilgrims how to survive, educating them on poisonous plants and building Indian-style houses. The surviving colonists celebrated their harvest with a bountiful feast and invited the Native Americans to join them. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without help from the Native Americans.

What people now call the first Thanksgiving was actually a three-day celebration of the Pilgrim’s harvest and a way to give thanks to God who had seen them through a difficult winter. There were about 140 people (90 Indian men and about 50 Pilgrims). Four adult women (the only women left following the terrible first winter) probably were in charge of all the cooking. The date was most likely somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, 1621. The term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to refer to any kind of wild fowl, including ducks, geese and even swans, so it is not certain that turkey was part of the first feast. However, it is known that the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared venison. It is also unlikely that the first feast included another staple of modern Thanksgiving celebrations –– pumpkin pie. The supply of flour had diminished long before; so there was no bread or pastries of any sort. The pilgrims did eat boiled pumpkin and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crops. There was also no milk, cider, potatoes or butter. But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison and plums –– a completely different picture from the treats found on today’s Thanksgiving tables.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charleston, Mass., held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for their good fortune. By unanimous vote they instructed clerk Edward Rawson to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. October of 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. Thanksgiving was celebrated somewhat randomly until George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not justify a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson apparently scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. But it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts led to what the U.S. now recognizes as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many articles championing her cause in Boston Ladies’ Magazine, and in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Finally, following a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale’s undertaking became a reality. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln designated a national day of thanksgiving.

Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually declaring the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday. However, the date was changed a couple of times, most recently by President Franklin Roosevelt who set it up one week to the next to last Thursday in order to create an extended Christmas shopping season. Public outcry against this change caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. One of the most recognized symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, also called the horn of plenty. Originating in ancient Greece, it is a decorative motif that symbolizes abundance. The original cornucopia was a curved goat’s horn, overflowing with fruit and grain. It symbolizes the horn possessed by Zeus’ nurse, the Greek nymph Amalthaea, which could be filled with whatever the owner wished.

On Thanksgiving Day, when millions of families and loved ones gather for their meal, they should do so in the spirit of the Pilgrims. Whether they partook of turkey or deer is not important, but rather their example of unwavering faith that inspired them to give thanks in a year where they witnessed the death of almost half their people. Yes, Thanksgiving has come a long way from the Pilgrim’s harvest festival in 1621, but the theme of Thanksgiving has endured over the years. In this spirit of gratitude, families and loved ones step back and give thanks for being together. This is the true significance of Thanksgiving.

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