Fourth Thursday of November

If an international visitor could make a Thanksgiving Day journey from the "rock bound" coast of Maine to the tropical shores of Hawaii, stopping at every family home along the way, he would probably be surprised to find such uniformity in the holiday scene. Whether the home were large, small, or middle-size, in the country, city, or suburbs, he would find relatives from near and far gathered for the annual reunion. And as he watched the feast being readied he would hear a jovial conversational blend of family news, comments on the weather, political views and compliments on the attractive table decorations.

He would see the dining table stretched to its limits, with bright paper turkeys marking places for all of the adults. The children, without waiting for a formal bidding, would find their places at card tables in an adjoining room the minute they saw the hostess emerge from the kitchen and remove her apron. He would see all join in restrained silence while a designated elder gave thanks for the year's bounty and reverently asked for continued blessings, elected to carve the "bird." And if he has been properly briefed, he would know that as father stands whetting the knife preparing to slice into the crisp brown turkey, family members must ready their answers to the inevitable question, "Do you prefer light or dark meat?"

Thanksgiving, the most truly American of the national holidays in the United States, was first celebrated in 1621 by English settlers of the Plymouth colony, and the spirit and customs with which they endowed the day have remained unchanged.

The settlers who have since come to be called the Pilgrims, had left their native England because they had been denied the right to separate from the established church to worship in their own way. They fled first to Holland, and in 1620 they sailed to America on the Mayflower, seeking a place where they could have freedom of worship. Their original destination was Jamestown, Virginia, but storms blew them to the north and after a tempestuous two-month voyage they landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in icy November. During their first winter, over half of the settlers died of starvation or epidemics, but the courageous survivors, through faith and some fortunate circumstances, were able to found a permanent colony. While scouting the area for fresh water, they had unearthed a cache of Indian seed corn, and when April came they began their planting, struggling with the rocky soil as they had struggled with the bitter climate. A friendly Indian named Squanto, who had been captured and released by other Englishmen, taught them how to plant the corn and how to fertilize the soil by burying three little herring under each hillock. Through Squanto they were able to make peace with the neighboring Indian tribes and from them they learned to hunt game animals and to trap beaver and to make a syrup from the sap drawn from the great maple trees. They found berries and fruit growing nearby, and the bay abounded in clams, eels and oysters. Hunters returned from the woods with wild turkeys, partridges, geese and ducks. The Divine Providence that had sustained them through the voyage and through the winter continued to support their efforts. All summer long they watched the crops with great anxiety, knowing that their lives and the future existence of the colony depended on the coming harvest. When, finally, the fields produced a yield rich beyond expectations, governor William Bradford proclaimed "a day of Thanksgiving unto the Lord so we might after a more special manner, rejoice after we had gathered the fruits of our labors."

The idea of giving thanks was not new nor was it peculiar to the Pilgrims. Throughout mythology and recorded history there have been harvest festivals. The ancient Hebrews, the Greeks and the Romans all celebrated the earth's bounty. The English had their "Harvest Home," a festival to celebrate the last load of grain brought home, with its church service of thanksgiving followed by a public feast and sports events. All these were part of the colonists' heritage. Yet Thanksgiving as first celebrated by the Pilgrims and repeated by Americans ever since has unique qualities born of life in the New World.

It was and is an indigenous holiday. The colonists had survived the threats of starvation, disease and the menace of attacks by the Indians. They had grained the long-sought freedom to live in accord with their deep-felt convictions. These blessings were gratefully acknowledged on that first Thanksgiving Day in 1621, although there is no record of a formal religious observance.

To thank the Patuxet Indians for their help and friendship, the Pilgrims invited their chief, Massasoit, to the feast. Presumably believing the festival to be like the Indian Green corn Dance, which included the whole tribe, Massasoit arrived accompanied by 90 braves. They brought five deer which were cooked in the open with the turkeys and geese provided by Pilgrim hunters; lobsters and oysters were roasted in the coals and clam chowder simmered in iron kettles over the fire. Gooseberries, strawberries, plums and cherries had been dried, and corn appeared in many forms: parched corn, roasted corn, hoe cakes and ash cakes, in Indian pudding and as popcorn. After the Manner of a true harvest festival, there was a sharing of what each had and Pilgrim severity gave way to Indian revelry. Following the feast, the colony's military leader, Capt. Miles Standish, "marched his little band of soldiers, the Indians competed in marksmanship with bows and arrows." The Pilgrims objected to celebrations fixed by the calendar, believing rather that "the ceremonies should respond to the dispensations of Providence." (This attitude in effect endures today, for Thanks-giving Day is announced each year by presidential proclamation.) Thus, the following year, when a scant harvest and trouble with the Indians gave no cause for a Thanksgiving, there was no observance. But in 1623, after a prolonged drought, the Pilgrims' prayers for rain had been answered, and Governor Bradford ordered that July 30 be set aside as a day of public thankfulness. Some authorities claim that this was the real beginning of the modern Thanksgiving since it included both religious and social celebrations. After 1623 Thanksgiving Days were celebrated irregularly and on a regional basis. Governors or the general assemblies throughout the colonies proclaimed a day of thanksgiving whenever the occasion warranted it. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Thanksgiving had become an annual holiday in Massachusetts and a generally accepted day for family reunions and celebrations.

A national Thanksgiving Day came only after the thirteen colonies had been united and George Washington, the Republic's first president, had assumed office. A resolution was presented to the newly formed National Congress proposing that a joint committee of both houses request the President of the United States to recommend to the people "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness." The resolution met vigorous opposition for the Young states had only reluctantly relinquished sovereignty to a central government, and some felt such matters belonged to the individual states. Nevertheless, the resolution was adopted and President Washington set Thursday, November 26, 1789, as the First National Thanksgiving.  In his proclamation President Washington exhorted the people of the United States to thank God for divine care during the formative colonial period, for aid during their struggle to be free, for the peace and prosperity that had come to the nation since the war, and, especially for the new Constitution.

Even so, Thanksgiving had no established permanence. Later presidents did not urge its observance, and controversy continued over the date. But the custom of giving thanks was becoming a part of American tradition, and as the frontier territories were settled, sentiment grew toward making Thanksgiving an annual holiday "on which Americans of all faiths and backgrounds could join in offering thanks to the Creator for their homes in a bounteous land."

In 1846, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a well-known women's magazine, launched her campaign to make Thanksgiving a national festival. After nine years of unrelenting effort, she finally accomplished her goal just as the Civil War was threatening to destroy the Union. On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the war, President Lincoln issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation since that of George Washington in 1789. As no paraphrase of Lincoln's eloquent and poetic proclamation could do it justice, it set forth in full in Part II of this chapter.

Since Lincoln's time it has been the custom for the president of the United States to proclaim annually the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, and for the governors of the states to issue proclamations for their respective states. The president's proclamation is published widely and is read at the beginning of all Thanksgiving Day church services. In addition to its immediate purpose, the proclamation is a valuable historical document, for it reveals the current state of the nation and gives insights into the president's thinking. Except for an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to change the date from the fourth to the third Thursday in November, the date has remained as fixed in 1863.

Nor has the pattern of the Thanksgiving celebration changed through the years. Just as it was at the first Pilgrim feast, it is a day for the gathering of the clan--to give thanks for the year's blessings, to enjoy the fruits of the harvest, and to share whatever one has with those less fortunate. The big family dinner--at grandmother's house or one where all can be accommodated--is planned months ahead. Some of the family will have to travel by air and others will make long motor trips with the children bundled in the family car. Sons and daughters away at college use their four-day holiday to go home, and employees take extra days from their work to be able to make the trip. Basically the dinner menu remains as it was in early times: that is part of the tradition. The following menu served on Thanksgiving Day 1863 resembles almost exactly one served a hundred years later.

Cranberry Juice
Roast Turkey with Dressing
Cranberry Sauce
Sweet Potatoes Creamed Onions
Pumpkin Pie Plum Pudding Mince Pie
Milk Coffee

Everyone agrees the dinner must be built around roast turkey stuffed with a bread dressing to absorb the tasty juices as it roasts. But it is not easy to get a consensus on the precise kind of stuffing for the royal bird. Recipes vary with families and with the regions where they live, and preferences are strong and fixed.

Table decorations likewise follow a traditional pattern--a harvest of bright-colored gourds, ears of Indian corn, apples, oranges, chestnuts, walnuts, dried leaves and purple grapes spilling out of a cornucopia in autumn bounty. Flowers also bring the fall scene indoors. There are bouquets of crysanthemums of golden yellow, burnished orange, and dark russet combined with boughs of berries and dried branches. In true Thanksgiving spirit the family circle is often enlarged to include friends known to be alone, foreign visitors, or a serviceman away from home. Nor are orphans, the aged and the homeless, and those in public institutions forgotten. They, too, have the traditional turkey dinner, provided either by some charitable individual or a civic or church group.

The international visitor, then, would see Thanksgiving as a day when the American family renews its gratitude for freedom to live and worship in accordance with individual conviction, gives thanks to God for abundant blessings, and finds fulfillment by sharing its bounty.

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1998 American Resource Center