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November 19, 2008 > Thanksgiving


By Praveena Raman

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. - John Fitzgerald Kennedy

President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized a national day of thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November beginning in 1863. However, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, a year when the fall harvest was very successful and plentiful. Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and neighboring Native American Indians. They had much to be thankful for since 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.

Thanksgiving celebrations and harvest festivals are not unique to the United States; they have been celebrated around the world in every culture from ancient times to the present. Many ancient farmers believed their crops contained spirits which would cause crops to grow and die. These spirits would be released when crops were harvested and had to be appeased or they would take revenge on the farmers.

Greeks honored Demeter, the goddess of grains, at the festival of Thesmosphoria with gifts of seed corn, cakes, fruit, and pigs while Romans celebrated with a harvest festival called Cerelia, which honored Ceres their goddess of corn. One of the most common symbols of Thanksgiving is the Cornucopia, also known as the horn of plenty. The Cornucopia originated in ancient Greece as a symbol of abundance. The original cornucopia was a curved goat's horn filled to the brim with fruit and grain.

Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival by honoring Min, their god of vegetation and fertility while ancient and modern Hindus in India celebrate Thanksgiving in January with prayers offered to the Sun God in appreciation of a good harvest. Chinese rejoice with a harvest festival, Chung Ch'ui, on the full moon of the 15th day of the eighth month with special moon cakes while Jewish families celebrate a harvest festival called Sukkoth lasting for 8 days. Japanese celebrate Kinro-Kansha-no-hi or Labor Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd while Brazilians observe Thanksgiving on the same day as the USA. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October. In the British Isles and Europe, the harvest thanksgiving is observed in Protestant and Catholic churches with special altar decorations while in Belfast, Northern Ireland, land has been set aside to establish a Thanksgiving Square.

Traditionally, in the United States, families and friends get together on Thanksgiving Day for turkey dinner with stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pies and other goodies. The feast is held as a way for families to come together and give thanks for all their blessings. Today, most Thanksgiving dinners include a turkey but back in 1621, other fowl such as ducks and geese were part of the feast. The term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to refer to any sort of wild fowl.

It's unlikely that the Pilgrims and Indians were treated to one of America's favorite desserts - pumpkin pie. The supply of flour was scarce - no bread to sop up gravy and no flakey pastries. Early celebrants also feasted on fried bread made from ground corn. Without domestic cattle for dairy products, no milk or butter was available. And the newly discovered potato was thought to be poisonous by many Europeans, so mashed potatoes were not part of the meal. The Thanksgiving feast was more like a traditional English harvest festival than a Thanksgiving Day celebration; it lasted three days. In addition to "turkey," the Pilgrims and Indians also dined on lobster, fish, clams, venison, berries, watercress, dried fruit and plums.

During the American Revolution (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. Finally, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln officially appointed a national day of thanksgiving.

In recent times this festival has also evolved to reach out to others less fortunate making their day a happy one too. Nationally communities establish food kitchens run by volunteers who besides serving those who come to the established places also deliver food and more to those who are homebound and in need of help.

In the Tri-city area many opportunities are present for all who would like to volunteer their services or donate money. League of Volunteers in Newark have been organizing a Thanksgiving Dinner for all those who would be either spending a day alone or do not have resources. This is a joint effort with several community organizations and offers fellowship and entertainment apart from food. If you are looking for opportunities to donate or volunteer contact League of Volunteers @ or call (510) 793-5683.

Tina Cuccia and Mekala Raman contributed to this report.

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