Fall is when I tend to reflect on a year of many blessings as we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and remembering the first celebration of thanks just a few centuries ago. On Thanksgiving Day, we realize once again that we have so much to be thankful for. God has blessed us all in so many ways, yet we often (me included) tend to take much in life for granted. And I cringe every time I hear this special day called Turkey Day, instead preferring to think that deep within each of us is a heart of thanksgiving for all the blessings showered upon us each and every day.
As a nation, we treasure the story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration at Plimouth Colony in 1621. (The Pilgrims of Plimouth are not to be confused with the Puritans who settled the Boston area; they are each of different religious backgrounds.) The original Mayflower passengers numbered 102, with about 50 crew members, when they set sail for the intended destination of the Virginia Colony. Blown northward off course, they arrived in 1620 to a barren landscape amidst cold and bitter November winds and snows.
These hardy souls struggled to survive as the ravages of disease took a toll on board ship where they wintered. Only 53 passengers and half the crew remained alive in the spring. This left a straggling group of humanity to emerge from winter’s stark bleakness to face the early days of spring. But, the days were bright with hope and promise as the warming sun nudged green buds alive on plants and trees. They had survived! And, with God’s help, they were determined to succeed in their endeavor to settle this new land.
Building huts within the protection of a fort and its cannon, they moved from the hold of the ship to life on shore. They learned to grow vegetables and hunt wild game and fish. Native Americans who had befriended them were of great assistance in teaching the best methods for growing their gardens, and hunting and fishing. At the end of harvest in October 1621, a feast was held for three days, traditionally considered the first Thanksgiving. From records kept, 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans attended this great feast.
By 1623, their failed communal farming effort had been given over to the more productive privatized individual family farming. With an abundant harvest following a drought and subsequent beneficial rains, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that same year: “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now, I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”
The Pilgrims’ annual tradition was followed in 1630 by the Puritans’ first celebration, in 1639 by settlers of Connecticut, and in 1644 among the Dutch of New Netherlands. Each group also set aside an annual day of thanksgiving in future years.
By the 18th century, various colonies designated a day of thanksgiving for military victories or bountiful crops. In December 1777, a national day of thanksgiving within all thirteen colonies was declared and set aside by General George Washington after British General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga. On October 3, 1789, President Washington set aside the first Thanksgiving Day, and proclaimed such a day again in 1795. Since then, a national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by future presidents, but not necessarily annually. It was President Abraham Lincoln who established a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the last Thursday of November 1863. Since then, Thanksgiving has been observed annually. However, change again took place in 1941 when President Franklin Roosevelt set the fourth Thursday of each November as the official date, and there it has remained.
What foods were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving Day feast in 1621? From writings kept, the Wampanoag Native Americans killed five deer. The colonists shot wild fowl – likely geese, ducks and turkey. Indian corn was used since what we know as field and sweet corn were not yet available. Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum at Plimouth Plantation, has said they “likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin (not in pie), squash, carrots and peas.” However, what we consider traditional foods for our Thanksgiving dinner (mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie) were not found on their table – these foods had not even been introduced into their diet yet!
What sets this day apart for you and your family? What makes your heart thankful? What special memories or traditions of Thanksgiving Day do you share with family and friends? I’d love to hear your memories!
Thanksgiving has always been a family day for us, whether during my childhood or with my husband and our children. When I was a small child, my dad had farm chores; but, we always attended a morning worship service. In my late teens, and no longer on the farm, and no worship service at our church, he often took us hunting. For my husband, Ed, every holiday was wrapped in never-ending milking and barn chores, continuing after we married.
I especially enjoyed the big dinners after church at my dad’s parents’ home in Clifton, New Jersey in my early teens. With her Dutch accent, my grandmother always welcomed us at the door with her cheery “Hello, Dear!” My grandfather, a general contractor, had fully shed his accent, though they both spoke Dutch when we grandkids were not to know the content of their conversation! And I well remember their food-laden table, surrounded by their three children and spouses, and all of us grandchildren.
Thanksgiving Day also brings to mind the quintessential painting by Norman Rockwell of the family gathered around the table - Grandma setting down the large platter of turkey, eagerly awaiting Grandpa’s carving. I began a fun tradition of naming our birds either Sir Thomas or Henrietta, depending on size.
Growing up, our children always enjoyed watching the Thanksgiving Day parades. I often had to work this holiday years ago, and looked forward to coming home to the delicious aroma of turkey dinner begun by my husband and children. Now, with our two remaining children grown and married, and each with children of their own, they celebrate with their respective spouse’s family. Ed and I celebrate with a small quiet dinner. And then, we eagerly anticipate Christmas and the return of our family for a few days.
Thanksgiving Day also never fails to remind us of those who have left behind an empty chair and a hole in our hearts – our oldest daughter, both my husband’s parents, and my dad and step-mother. Yet, sweet memories of their love cast a warm glow over all.
With thankful hearts for the many blessings God has so generously bestowed on each of us, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving Day!