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A History of Thanksgiving

For many, the celebration of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November conjures up warm memories of large family gatherings and festive holiday tables filled with rich foods. It reminds us to be thankful for all the blessings of the preceding year and hopeful of what lies ahead. Thanksgiving also traditionally provides us a beautiful picture of different cultures coming together to share a meal in harmony. The origin of the holiday goes back to the first Pilgrim settlers of New England. On Sept. 6, 1620 a group of Separatist Puritans known as the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World, seeking freedom from religious persecution. They sailed from Plymouth, England and sixty-five long days later, landed on the Cape Cod coast. Soon the Pilgrims settled in this new land and named it Plymouth after their hometown. The first winter was devastatingly harsh for the small group of Pilgrims, and they eventually lost nearly half of those who had originally sailed from England together. But the harvest the next year was a bountiful one, and it is believed that the small fledgling colony would not have survived without the help of the Native Americans. he Pilgrims decided to hold a three-day harvest festival and invited approximately ninety Wamapanoag Indians, including a prominent leader named Massasoit. Their first Thanksgiving meal together was probably a traditional English feast celebrating both the fall harvest and the providence of God.

In 1676, twenty-five years after the first Thanksgiving meal, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts determined that the community needed to set aside a day to express thanks for the blessings they had received. June 29 was chosen to be this day of thanksgiving. A century later, on October of 1777, all thirteen colonies joined in a one-time thanksgiving celebration. George Washington then declared a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. However, not everyone was in agreement that there needed to be a special day for thanksgiving. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln instituted the last Thursday in November to be celebrated nationally as a day of thanksgiving, in response to a campaign organized by magazine editor Sara Joseph Hale. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day forward one week, as it is presently celebrated.

The turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving, as it is believed to have been the prize dish of the first meal shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. In fact, early explorers to the New World quickly acquired a taste for turkey and took the birds back to Europe. By the 1500s, turkeys were being raised domestically in Italy, France and England. When the Pilgrims and other settlers arrived in America, they were already familiar with raising and eating turkey and naturally included it as part of their Thanksgiving feast. Benjamin Franklin proposed that the turkey be named the official United States' bird, and reportedly was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle's "bad moral character," saying, "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were Separatist Puritans, a 17th century movement that sought to return to a pure Biblical faith. They believed that the Church of England had become so corrupt that they could no longer work within the established Church to affect change. As such, they separated themselves from the Church and sought to live simple lives of obedience to God. The Pilgrims believed that the "church" consisted not of a grand building, but the people who made up the congregation. They called the building in which they met a "meetinghouse" and it was usually plainly decorated, free from any icons, paintings, statues and crosses. Services were held twice on Sundays, morning and afternoon, and usually lasted about three hours. The Pilgrims were called together to worship by a drum, and sung Psalms without musical accompaniment. Although they followed the model of the Lord's Prayer, they did not believe that it should be recited by rote. The service also involved Scripture reading and a sermon. In celebrating a traditional Thanksgiving, consider gathering your local church or Bible study group for a Pilgrim prayer service. Ask each person to come prepared to share their favorite passage of Scripture. Begin your service in silence, asking God to bless the meeting and everyone gathered. Sing some simple songs based on the Psalms. (Many modern praise choruses as well as old hymns come straight out of the Psalms.) Then have everyone share their favorite Scripture verses and their reasons for choosing them. End the service in prayer, asking God to bless each family represented.