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November 21, 2006 > Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

by Pushpa Warrier

What we know today as “Thanksgiving Day” was first celebrated by the pilgrims following a successful harvest that allowed them to survive another year in the land called America. Arriving at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, their first winter was laborious and brutal. By the following fall, 46 of the original 102 pilgrims who sailed to the "New World" on the Mayflower had died. With help from native Indians, the pilgrims’ hard work and tenacity paid off and the harvest in the fall of 1621 was bountiful. They now had corn, fruits and vegetables, plus salted fish and smoked meats that would keep all winter, built homes in the wilderness and were at peace with their Indian neighbors. To honor their good fortune, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving to be shared by colonists and Indians.

The custom of an annual Thanksgiving celebration, held after the harvest, continued in the years that followed. During the American Revolution in the late 1770s, a day of National Thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. 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. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially appointed a National Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has been proclaimed by every president since then.

The specific date for Thanksgiving has been changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt who moved it up one week in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar caused Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving, one by Edward Winslow in a letter dated December 12, 1621; and one by William Bradford in his History of Plymouth Plantation. Written about twenty years after the fact, Bradford's History was rediscovered in 1854 after it was taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery prompted a greater American interest in the history of the pilgrims, which eventually led to Lincoln's decision to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is found.

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

From this plain and difficult beginning, America today offers tremendous bounty and opportunity to one and all. Thanksgiving Day is that one moment of the year when citizens pause to consider all that has arisen from the efforts and sacrifices of those early, hardy pilgrims and their Indian neighbors.

 
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