Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Thanksgiving History and Traditions

Have you ever been curious about why we celebrate holidays the way we do? Today I thought we'd explore the history behind Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims may be the quintessential symbol of Thanksgiving, but the truth is, the Pilgrims never held a "Thanksgiving" feast.

The actual "First Thanksgiving" most likely refers to a mid October feast the pilgrims held in 1621, after their first successful harvest in the new land. Since the pilgrims never repeated the celebration, it can't really be called the start of a tradition. It is also doubtful that the devoutly religious Pilgrims would have had termed it a "Thanksgiving feast" either, as giving thanks would have called for a day of fasting and prayer.

A Native American named Squanto was said to befriend the Pilgrims and it is doubtful they would have survived the first harsh New England winter without him. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to tap maple trees for sap, how to plant Indian corn and other crops as well as which plants in the surrounding areas were poisonous and which had healing powers.

The resulting October harvest was so successful, the Pilgrims had stored enough food to sustain them through the winter with plenty to spare. There were smoked cured meats, fish packed in salt cures, fruits, vegetables and the American staff of life, corn.

We do know a few facts about the first feast. For instance it can be assumed that it was held in the great outdoors, as the colonists didn't have buildings large enough to accommodate the large number of guests. If you've ever spent an autumn in New England, you know this can be a chilly proposition. Turkey was probably served, as was pumpkin or squash in one form or another. One entree that hasn't stood the test of time is venison, a staple of the ninety or so Native Americans who were invited to the celebration, including Squanto and Chief Massasoit.

The first feast was, in essence, a big pot luck dinner that went on for three (count them) days! In addition to turkeys and venison, the dinner probably included ducks, geese and even swans. There were games, races and demonstrations of skills with bows and arrows and muskets, making a true festival atmosphere.

Customs of celebrating an annual day of Thanksgiving after the autumn harvest began to spring up in the colonies, but didn't get national recognition until the late 1770's when it was suggested by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. New York officially adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom in 1817, and many other states soon followed suit, but it wasn't until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of Thanksgiving. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.

Our neighbors in Canada celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, a time closer in fact to the date of the first feast. Official Canadian observance of Thanksgiving began in 1879.

While that covers the traditions of modern Thanksgiving in a nutshell, the day's true history actually goes back far before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World. Harvest festivals were held by many ancient civilizations. The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, the goddess of grains, each autumn at the festival of Thesmosphoria. The Romans celebrated a harvest festival called Cehrefia, which honored Ceres their goddess of corn. The harvest festival, Chung Ch'ui was celebrated by the ancient Chinese with the full moon that fell on the 15th day of the 8th month. Hebrew families have celebrated a harvest festival called Sukkoth for over 3000 years. The ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival in the spring to honor Min, their god of vegetation and fertility.

So this Thanksgiving when you sit down to feast, think about the ancient tradition that is still kept alive today through the sharing of food, family, friends, and love.

More on Thanksgiving

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