Edmond P. DeRousse

The Pilgram’s First Thanksgiving 


Thanksgiving is one of the most recognized and celebrated American holidays. It trails only Christmas as the favorite holiday. When we think about Thanksgiving we prepare for Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies, football, overeating, and family gatherings. We also think of those making a long journey across a treacherous sea for a religious purpose, the Pilgrims, to a foreign land in a ship called the Mayflower. 

But what are the origins of the holiday? What is its true purpose and what should it mean to us today?  How did it transition into the phenomenon it is today? 

The idea for the holiday can be traced back to pre-Christian British society with the Saxons 410 – 1066 AD. Their pagan society would come together every autumn to eat supper, fashion straw dolls, and harvest corn and other products. The American Pilgrims were simply following their own traditions and cultural norms they had grown up with. 

Communal festivals celebrating perceived acts of providence were popular as a result of the English Reformation (1534 – 1603) which was begun during King Henry VIII reign, 1509 – 1547. Days of Thanksgiving, observing Acts of God were celebrated. For example, in 1588 a special service of thanksgiving for the defeat of the Spanish Armada was held at St. Paul’s in London.

On August 15, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Southampton, England for America. The Mayflower was a square-rigged vessel that was about 25 feet wide and 106 feet long. It arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, (not their intended destination) on December 16, 1620, and established their settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The English soldier and explorer, John Smith had already named the area Plymouth after leaving Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement. 

The colonists began building their community. Their trail, though, began with their 65 day-long ordeal to the new world. 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space about twice the size of a modern city bus. Those who survived the trip then had to survive the cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. The following spring fifty-one members of their party had died. Fourteen of the eighteen wives had perished. That left an abundance of widowers and orphans.     

The inhabitants of this new world, the Pilgrims, were people of remarkable faith and fortitude with a newfound religious freedom. They were common folk with average abilities and below-average means who risked everything for their families and community of faith. 

It was the Wampanoag Native Americans who helped save the Pilgrims from starvation and death during their first harsh winter. The Native Americans understood how to manage the land and passed their knowledge to these new people of a different world.  

Those who had survived that first year celebrated. They celebrated in late September or early October 1621 a God granted harvest sufficient enough to see them through the next winter. A celebratory harvest feast of thanks was shared between the surviving 50 English colonist and 90 Wampanoag Indians. It was a feast that has since become the model for Thanksgiving holiday in America; a prayer service for blessing shared over an Autumn harvest meal. 

The Pilgrims obviously did not think of their celebration as being a National Holiday. It is more likely that they modeled that celebration after the harvest festivals common at the time in Egland. In fact, most of what we know about that celebration comes down to five sentences and 115 words written by William Bradford in a letter he wrote to supporters in England.  

But Thanksgiving has some blurred history.

Historians have recorded ceremonies of thanks that predate 1621. 

Spanish explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, in 1565 invited members of local Timucua tribe to a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for his ships’ safe arrival in the newly christened settlement of St. Augustine, Florida.

On December 4, 1619, a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God” was read by 38 British settlers after reaching a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River.

Some historians take issue with how the traditional Thanksgiving story is presented. They say, because of a long and bloody conflict between Native Americans and European settlers, the traditional story gives a deceptive positive picture of relations between Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. 

Some politicians believed a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” declared by George Washington in 1789 violated the separation of church and state. 

Some in the South saw Thanksgiving as “another manifestation of intrusive, New England moralism”.

How did Thanksgiving become a National Holiday?

In 1789, over 125 years after the Harvest Festival at Plymouth, George Washington issued the First Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it he invited Americans to thank God for their safety and happiness.

Around 1827, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the “godmother of Thaanksgiving” began her campaign to make Thanksgiving a National Holiday. She was an American writer, activist, and editor of the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale would promote her campaign by publishing Thanksgiving-themed poems, tales of families happily dining together, and recipes. She launched a letter writing campaign to members of Congress, Governors, and Presidents.  

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday on the final Thursday of November. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.

 As Christians, we can reclaim Thanksgiving. Rather than just being a day where we eat too much and strategize our Black Friday sales plan of attack, we can go back to our historical and spiritual roots as we give thanks to God. 

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