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AMERICA - THANKSGIVING: "Our Heritage of Giving Thanks"

Our Heritage of Giving Thanks

Following the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, the Pilgrims lost 46 of their original 102 colonists mostly to disease. With the help of 91 Iroquois Indians, the remaining Pilgrims survived the bitter winter. The Indians taught them how to hunt and fish and how to grow corn and other crops in the unfamiliar soil.

1621 yielded a bountiful harvest. In celebration, a traditional English harvest festival lasting three days brought Pilgrims and natives to unite in a “thanksgiving” observance. Edward Winslow, one of the participating Pilgrims, described the feast as “consisting of corn, barley, fowl (including wild turkeys and waterfowl), and venison.” Colonists had learned from the Indians how to cook cranberries and different corn and squash dishes. Attendees included John Alden, William Bradford, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish among the Pilgrims, as well as the Natives Massasoit and Squanto, who acted as the Pilgrim's translator. It was a secular event that was not repeated. Two years later, in 1623, a Calvinist Thanksgiving took place but did not involve sharing food with the Native Americans.

A “thanksgiving” meal would not be celebrated again for 53 years. On June 29, 1676, the community of Charlestown, Massachusetts proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for their good fortune in their recent victory over the “heathen natives.” Naturally, this celebration excluded the Indians!  

101 years later, in October of 1777, all 13 colonies participated in a one-time “thanksgiving” celebration commemorating the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga.

Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November in 1863 to celebrate the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. The author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Sarah Josepha Hale, published a letter to President Lincoln in a popular women's magazine, advocating for a national holiday that would help unify the nation during the Civil War.

In 1941, Congress voted that the 4th Thursday in November would be a federal holiday proclaimed by the President each year.

The First Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamation by George Washington in 1789: “Both Houses of Congress have... requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”

Abraham Lincoln: “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has.”

Theodore Roosevelt: “Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us. True homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”

John F. Kennedy: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them”

Ronald Reagan: “No custom reveals our character as a Nation as clearly as our celebration of Thanksgiving Day.”

George Bush's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1990: “The great freedom and prosperity with which we have been blessed is cause for rejoicing - and it is equally a responsibility. I do hereby call upon the American people to gather together in homes and places of worship on that day of thanks to affirm by their prayers and their gratitude the many blessings God has bestowed upon us.”

O. Henry: “There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe): “Great as the preparations were for the dinner, everything was so contrived that not a soul in the house should be kept from the morning service of Thanksgiving in the church.”

Charles M. Schulz: In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Peppermint Patty says, “Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. Those early Pilgrims were thankful for what had happened to them. We should just be thankful for being together. I think that's what they mean by 'Thanksgiving,' Charlie Brown.”