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Thanksgiving History

 Click to listen to… Thanks To GodIt may come as a surprise to learn that the “First Thanksgiving” was really not a “thanksgiving” in the sense that the Pilgrims would have used the word. Rather, it was a traditional English harvest celebration (the Pilgrims’ use of the word had more religious overtones).*

Even more surprising is the fact that this “First Thanksgiving” was not even associated with our national Thanksgiving holiday until the nineteenth century!

According to historian Jim Baker, the former director of research at the Plimoth Plantation:

“Although the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration had been identified as the first American Thanksgiving** as early as 1841 by [historian] Alexander Young, the common Thanksgiving symbolic associations in the 19th century centered on turkeys, Yankee dinners and an annual family reunion, not Pilgrims.

“Moreover, whenever a Pilgrim, or more accurately, a generic 17th-century puritan image, appeared in popular art in connection with Thanksgiving during the nineteenth century, it was not the now familiar scene of English and Indians sitting down to an outdoor feast. On the contrary, the image almost always portrayed a violent confrontation between colonist and Native American. It was only after the turn of the century . . . that the romantic (and historically correct) idyllic image of the two cultures sitting down to an autumn feast became popular. By the First World War, popular art (especially postcards), schoolbooks and literature had linked the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving indivisibly together” (Jim Baker, “The ‘First Thanksgiving’: Facts and Fancies,” 1998).

Though the association of the Pilgrims with the Thanksgiving holiday has a “complicated history,” there may well be a historical connection. The Pilgrims are probably responsible for spreading the practice of thanksgiving throughout New England. For what began as “a routine Puritan religious observation, irregularly declared and celebrated in response to God’s favorable Providence” eventually evolved into a “single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration” (Jim Baker, “The ‘First Thanksgiving’: Facts and Fancies,” 1998).

By the time of the American Revolution, the Thanksgiving celebrations so common in New England began to spread south as Congress issued eight separate Thanksgiving Proclamations beginning in 1777 (www.pilgrimhall.org).

In 1789, Congress urged President George Washington to issue the first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. It is, in part, as follows:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . . Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection” (see the full text of Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation).

Though subsequent presidents made thanksgiving proclamations (see www.pilgrimhall.org), the holiday was essentially a regional observance until 1863. The adoption of a uniform, national holiday is generally credited to Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who spent many years campaigning for it – writing letters to governors and presidents, as well as editorials (she her inspiring 1863 editorial).

President Lincoln responded in 1863 by setting aside the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving. Lincoln’s proclamation has special significance when considered in its context. America was in the midst of a Civil War. Though the tide of war had begun to change, there had been a tremendous loss of life on both sides. And it would be two more long years before the Civil War would end.

During this difficult time in American history, President Lincoln sought to begin the healing process for a divided nation with a call to unite in giving thanks to God. Here are his words, in part:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God . . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” (see the full text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation).

Historian David Barton notes that this “remarkable Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a pivotal point in Lincoln’s spiritual life. Three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had occurred, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. It had been while Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he first committed his life to Christ” (www.wallbuilders.com).

Lincoln wrote in a letter to a clergyman:

“When I left Springfield [Illinois, to assume the Presidency], I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, G.W. Carleton adn Company, 1882, p. 366).

For the next 75 years, American presidents faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent and annually declared a national Thanksgiving Day. However, dates varied, so in 1941 Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday of November as the national Thanksgiving holiday.

By the 20th century, Americans began to look back to their early history to better understand the “the spirit of Thanksgiving.” Without doubt, the Pilgrim story is one of the most inspiring. The Pilgrims serve as a shining example of gratitude to God, even in the midst of great hardship.

Furthermore, the tradition of giving thanks as a community may well be traced to their faithful practice of “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

The history of thanksgiving in America is, without a doubt, rooted in religious devotion; it is a time to give our thanks to the one and only Almighty God for his blessings. May we ALWAYS remember him as the source of all good things and heed his words in Deuteronomy:

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10-14a).

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Post one of your most memorable Thanksgiving moments below!

For more on the Pilgrim story, see historian Jim Baker’s articles.

*The Pilgrims (or more specifically, the Puritans) had “three allowable holy days: The Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The latter two were never held on a regular basis but only in direct response to God’s Providence . .  . . Each of these days were held on weekdays and meant an extra day of church services and devotion in addition to the Sabbath. The Day of Thanksgiving was often concluded with a feast, while the fast days saw voluntary privation.”

“The harvest celebration of autumn, 1621, was quite plainly neither a fast day nor a thanksgiving day in the eyes of the Pilgrims. Rather it was a secular celebration which included games, recreations, three days of feasting and Indian guests. It would have been unthinkable to have these things as part of a religious Thanksgiving. The actual first declared Thanksgiving occurred in 1623, after a providential rain shower saved the colony’s crops” (Jim Baker, “The Pilgrims as People: Understanding the Plymouth Colonists,” 1998).

**Many historians deny the claim that the 1621 harvest celebration was the first thanksgiving on American soil. Other earlier thanksgiving celebrations are: (1) 1541 at Palo Canyon, Texas with Coronado and 1500 of his men, (2) 1564 at St. Augustine, Florida with French colonists, (3) 1598 at El Paso, Texas with Juan de Onate and his expedition, (4) 1607 at Cape Henry, Virginia with the landing of the Jamestown settlers, and (5) 1619 at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia.

Article reprinted from: http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=1330

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