Today is a state and national holiday thanking God for the many blessings that He has bestowed on us and our country.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the surviving Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian friends celebrating the Pilgrims’ first harvest after a brutal winter. The successful first harvest with the aid of the compassionate Indians insured that the Plymouth Colony survived.
Thanksgiving was first declared a holiday by the first President George Washington in 1789 after it was requested by the U.S. Congress.
President Thomas Jefferson made the decision not to celebrate the holiday and the holiday went in and out of fashion depending on the whims of each President until Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863, during the height of the Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
In 1620, a group of religious dissenters left England aboard the Mayflower bound for the English colony in Virginia, founded in 1607. En route to the new world they made the decision to divert the ship towards the American wilderness and landed near modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts to set up their own colony separate and totally isolated from the Virginians and the then dominant Church of England. The Pilgrims had no authority from the crown to do this and theoretically separated themselves from England and support from the outside world. 45 of the 102 immigrants died during that harsh first New England winter, and there was only one recorded birth.
In Virginia, the English colonists quickly got into a decades-long series of wars with the Indians of the Chesapeake Bay area. The Pilgrims strived to have friendly relations with the Indians. They managed to plant and harvest their first crop with tremendous help from the Native Americans allowing them to survive. The surviving Pilgrims celebrated a bountiful harvest that would sustain them for the next winter. Following the harvest, they invited their Wampanoag Indian friends to a celebration thanking God that they survived such a dangerous gamble, and the first Thanksgiving was born.
According to the colony’s governor, William Bradford, and future governor, Edward Winslow, the first Thanksgiving meal included onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas, corn, potatoes, lobster, bass, clams, oysters, turkey and various waterfowl. The Wampanoag Indians brought an offering of five deer. The pilgrims gave thanks to God, offered prayers and sang hymns in celebration.
In 1628, a much larger colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived with a charter to create a “New England.” They were shocked to find the hardy Pilgrims were already there, cementing the pilgrims a place in the history of what would eventually become the United States.
The Pilgrims were not the first English settlers in North America. Virginia was founded thirteen years earlier and they celebrated a day of Thanksgiving in 1610. The English were not the first European settlers in North America. St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565, 55 years ahead of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth; but somehow it was the Pilgrims with their distinctive black clothes, religious fervor, turkey dinners, and friendly relations with the Native Americans that has captured the national imagination.
Today is a day for thanking God for the blessings that we have enjoyed, renewing and strengthening ties with family, making memories, and eating too much turkey and dressing, arguing about whether bread dressing or cornbread dressing is better, and watching parades and NFL football on TV.