Thanksgiving a holiday with a history stretching across Atlantic
GATHERED TOGETHER: The Pilgrims brought their thanksgiving traditions to the New World, where they held a feast in 1621. 'First Thanksgiving,' a painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris made in the early 20th century, imagines the event.
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection
Although we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, they were not the originators of the tradition, nor has the celebration been continuous since Colonial times. Its curious history has roots stretching across time and the Atlantic Ocean, but it would only become the holiday we know it - taking place on the fourth Thursday of November - by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. Even this date would be subject to change as recently as the 1930s.
The holiday evolved from many ancient traditions. The Jewish people of the Old Testament held elaborate rituals of sacrifice and offerings to God. Both the Greeks and Romans were known to express thanks through feasts to their gods for a good harvest season. During medieval times, European countries abounded in festivals of thanksgiving for the bounty of harvests.
New World, new tradition
Most of the New World settlers came from Europe, so they were familiar with thanksgiving traditions. The Pilgrims brought with them the holiday as we know it to Massachusetts.
Through the friendship of an Indian named Squanto, the Pilgrims learned how to plant corn and squash, and where to hunt and fish - skills that proved successful in their harvest of 1621. In gratitude for these blessings, a three-day feast was held Dec. 13, 1621. Venison, duck, goose, seafood, corn, greens, berries and nuts were abundant at the celebration.
The next year's harvest, however, proved scarce. It wasn't until 1623 that conditions were better and another thanksgiving was held, this time on July 30.
These two celebrations were merely local affairs, but they were the forerunners of other sporadic celebrations in the New England states. Within 50 years, Massachusetts alone had as many as 22 public thanksgiving days appointed in the fall.
Thanksgivings were proclaimed by civil authorities and proposed to congregations for a variety of occasions, such as the gathering of the harvest, replenishment of provisions from Europe, and the safe return of soldiers from battles with the Indians. Even so, these days of giving thanks had still not become annual events.