As most of us settle down to celebrate Thanksgiving, we recall the stories we’ve heard since early childhood about the first Thanksgiving taking place in 1621, when the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest of crops and a year of survival.
The Pilgrims who survived that terrible first year in America were joined by about 90 native Wampanoag people. The celebration was said to have lasted three days.
The Pilgrims and their Native American guests ate deer, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, shellfish, fish, corn in the form of bread or porridge, pumpkins, squash and other vegetables. Some of those items have remained staples of Thanksgiving meals ever since.
Texans say the first Thanksgiving was held in 1598. Several hundred Spaniards led by Juan de Onate wanted to celebrate their surviving a treacherous expedition of exploration. They invited members of the Mansos tribe to join them in a feast that included roasted fish, fowl and meat.
Others claim it happened in Florida, when in 1565 the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men gave thanks for their arrival in the New World after a perilous sea voyage that lasted more than two months.
After celebrating a Mass of Thanksgiving, they invited the local Timucuan tribe to a feast that included salt pork, red wine, garbanzo beans, olives, sea biscuits, corn, fish berries and beans.
Officially, America has celebrated Thanksgiving since October 1863, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln said it should be observed each year on the last Thursday of November.
But it was President George Washington who issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.
In his proclamation, Washington wrote that both Houses of Congress had requested he “recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
The holiday didn’t take hold nationally, but was observed at different times in different states.
Lincoln wrote his Thanksgiving proclamation after receiving a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”
Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale’s request immediately.
However, he didn’t write the Thanksgiving proclamation. Secretary of State William Seward did.
Dated Oct. 3, 1863, the proclamation detailed how the country torn by civil war had experienced, nonetheless a year “…filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. … They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Wherever or whenever the first Thanksgiving took place, the celebrants were thankful for what they had — especially the fact that they had survived terrible ordeals.
The same can be said this Thanksgiving Day.
Not everything this past year has perfect for us individually, and collectively as a nation, but in the long run we have a great deal to appreciate.
We still live in the greatest country in the world, and its continued survival in the face of all the perils it has endured, are reasons to be thankful.
They are the same reasons Washington and Lincoln wanted the nation to celebrate when they issued their respective proclamations.