For thousands of years,
people have set aside a day to celebrate the autumn harvest,
giving thanks for a plentiful growing season. Ancient
Hebrews held a special eight-day feast to celebrate their
harvest season. And, people in ancient Greece dedicated a
nine-day harvest festival to Demeter, the goddess of
agriculture. Similarly, pre-Christian Europeans marked a
good harvest with a large feast before crops were gathered
and stored for the winter.
Celebrations surrounding the
autumn harvest have continued throughout history, and many
modern cultures have set aside a specific day to give
thanks. The date and customs may vary from country to
country, but the desire to take time and reflect on life's
blessings remains the same.
In the United States, this
day of thanks is called Thanksgiving. It is a national
holiday observed on the fourth Thursday of November. On this
day, family and friends get together for a feast to
celebrate their good fortune, relax and enjoy one another's
company. It is also the unofficial beginning of the winter
When most people imagine "the
first Thanksgiving," they think of the Pilgrims sharing a
hearty banquet with local Native Americans. While it is true
that the American colonists invited the Native Americans to
celebrate their first harvest in the New World, the event
did not spark the Thanksgiving tradition that we know today.
In fact, the occasion was not called "Thanksgiving" and the
Pilgrims did not even celebrate it the following year. What
we think of as "the first Thanksgiving" was actually quite
different from our modern celebration.
The initial "Thanksgiving"
feast, held in 1621, was really a traditional English
harvest celebration. The Pilgrims shared it with the Native
Americans because they had taught the colonists to plants
crops and hunt wild game. Without the Native Americans, the
Pilgrims may not have survived the harsh winter and been
able to celebrate their first harvest of plentiful crops in
the New World.
At the harvest feast, modern
Thanksgiving staples such as pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce,
corn and mashed potatoes were not served. Since historical
evidence shows wild fowl was part of the harvest festival,
it is possible that turkey was part of the Pilgrims' meal.
However, an exact record of the menu did not survive over
time. Historians believe that seafood and wild game were the
main dishes at the autumn celebration since the colonists
lived near the Atlantic Ocean as well as the forest.
Seasonal vegetables such as squash may have been part of the
harvest feast, however, vegetable dishes did not play an
important role in people's diet like they do today. Sweet
desserts also did not accompany the meal due to a dwindling,
or nonexistent, supply of sugar. And, without ovens, it was
impossible for the Pilgrims to make breads, pies or cakes.
The colonists' first harvest
feast lasted for three days. Food was served all at once,
instead of in courses, so people ate whatever they pleased
in the order that they desired. The more important members
at the feast were given the best pieces of meat, while the
rest of the diners ate whatever was closest to them. Since
the Pilgrims didn't use forks or plates, they ate their meal
straight off the table with spoons, knives or their fingers.
They used large napkins to wipe their hands and also wrapped
it around food when it was too hot to hold.
Even though we think of the
harvest festival as "the first Thanksgiving," the colonists
did not use a name for their autumn celebration. The
occasion was not called "Thanksgiving" because the word had
a completely different meaning to the Pilgrims. To them, a
day of "thanksgiving" was actually a religious holiday set
aside for giving thanks to God. As a result, the Pilgrims
would never have given such a religious name to a secular
day marked by feasting, dancing, singing, and playing games.
Instead their harvest celebration was simply identified by
the season and the activities involved. It wasn't until the
nineteenth century that the feast we know today acquired the
Since the autumn harvest
usually occurred sometime between late September and the
middle of October, the colonists' harvest festival wasn't
celebrated in November, like it is today. For hundreds of
years, people simply celebrated the harvest whenever nature
was ready. In 1863, President Lincoln declared the last
Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. However, since he
did not establish it as a national holiday each state had
the right to decide when it would celebrate Thanksgiving. It
wasn't until 1941 that Thanksgiving was declared a national
holiday, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.