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Thanksgiving Day History

Thanksgiving today usually means huge helpings of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, and a college football game, but that wasn’t the origins of Thanksgiving Day history. Many countries celebrate some type of harvest celebration, as a cultural tradition and a nod to the days when average people were farmers. The harvest was everything, and the yield could mean the difference between eating for the winter or starving. It was a matter of life and death.

Thanksgiving Day History

The Roots of Thanksgiving

Even before there were 13 colonies in what is now the United States, there were the very earliest of settlers. They were known as the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims knew themselves as Separatists; that is, they purposefully separated themselves from the Church of England, and what they saw as its decadence and Pope-like trappings. In the days after Martin Luther, it was a huge issue of contention to be seen in England as being affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. To call the Church of England “Popeish” was an insult, indeed!

Naturally, as contentious as religious sects can be, the Separatists removing themselves from what was seen to be the official church of the state led to a hostile situation. As recently as 1559, it had been actually illegal for an English citizen not to attend Church of England services. Such a crime was punishable by a fairly substantial fine.

Conducting services outside of the official church had even heavier penalties, including prison, and in some rare case, it was a cause for execution. The Separatists refused to budge from their beliefs, but that meant they’d have to remove themselves from the source of contention - England herself. This removal is the source of American Thanksgiving Day history.

Leaving Home

Eventually more than 150 Pilgrims made their way from England to Amsterdam, which had the reputation of being a hospitable place for dissenting views. Things had gotten bad with the Pilgrims. In England, the state had actually refused the Pilgrims the right to leave its shores and strike out on their own. The 150 who did flee to Amsterdam were forced to go undercover and sneak out of the country.

They were still left with the memory of religious persecution, and the fear that if they did nothing, they’d wind up staying in Holland, where they also feared losing their ethnic and religious identity.

The only place that seemed to make sense for them to go was to a far-off land, where they’d be free from persecution, and yet still have the opportunity to spread their wings and become a free people, free to follow their own destiny. That place was the New World, in America.

Thanksgiving Day History

In September 1620, 44 Pilgrims, along with other non-Pilgrim passengers, set out on their trip, aboard the Mayflower. The long, desperately hard trip lasted 65 days, and many of the Pilgrims, not used to the hardships, were sick and weary abroad the journey in the cold Atlantic. The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in November, where they set up housekeeping.

They were afraid of the local Indians, who proved to be peaceful and unthreatening.

The first winter was horrible for the settlers, Pilgrim and non-Pilgrim alike. Out of 110 newcomers, only 50 made it to spring. The local Indians, seeing their plights, taught them how to plant corn and other vegetables, and how to plan and survive during the spring and summer. The Indians taught them how to catch and cure fish, and how to put aside meat so it would last and not spoil. By harvest time in 1621, the settlers had enough food grown and stored to make it through the long winter.

The governor of the colony, William Bradford, announced there would be several days of Thanksgiving for the settlers and the local Indians who had helped them learn to survive.

Thanksgiving Day history became an American tradition, beginning with the Continental Congress in the late 1770s, until the day was finally made a national holiday by the pen of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.