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: “The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great

The American Tradition of Thanksgiving: A Harvest Festival with Roots in the Old World

As the leaves turn beautiful golden and fiery red hues, and the weather gets colder and people prepare for the oncoming winter in the Northern Hemisphere, Americans enjoy the annual celebration of Thanksgiving. It is a time to be with family and friends, to remember the history of the country’s founders hundreds of years ago, and to be grateful for all they have. In effect, it is a time to count blessings and enjoy the bounty of the year – with a very large focus on traditional foods such as roasted turkey and seasonal vegetables.

Now observed on the fourth Thursday in November annually, the history of Thanksgiving is taught to American children. For some families it is the biggest celebration of the year, and the start of the holiday season, including Christmas and the New Year.

The holiday is considered a vital part of American history and identity.

The Settlers on the Mayflower

The traditional story recounts the hardships suffered and celebrations had by the original colonists (known also as Pilgrims) when they first came to North America from Europe. It is sparsely documented, but Thanksgiving Day is thought to be traced to an occasion at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, where religious refugees from England shared a feast with the local Native Americans.

The small ship Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England in 1620 filled with religious separatists seeking a new home to practice their faith, as well as enterprising people looking to start a new life of land ownership and prosperity. After an arduous 66-day journey, they landed and established a village named Plymouth in Massachusetts.

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (1877)

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (1877) ( Public Domain )

The North American winter was especially hard for the newcomers, and their harvests largely failed, resulting in half of the original 102 passengers dying of exposure, starvation, scurvy, and disease.

The Native Americans are said to have surprised the Pilgrims by greeting them in English. A member of the tribe, Squanto, had been previously kidnapped by an Englishman and learned the language during his captivity. Squanto, a Wampanoag, and members of the Abenaki and Pawtuxet tribes assisted the Pilgrims in learning how to survive in the New World by cultivating indigenous plants, extracting sap from maple trees, catching fish and more. Alliances were forged between the Pilgrims and local tribes, creating a 50-year example of peace between colonists and Native Americans.

First Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914).

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914). ( Public Domain )

A year later in 1621 the colonists were successful in their harvest, and had a bounty of corn (or maize). It is said Governor William Bradford invited Native American friends and allies to a celebratory feast, now considered the “First Thanksgiving” which lasted for three days.

Perhaps surprising to Americans now who celebrate with turkey, potatoes and seasonal vegetables such as beans, corn, squash, and cranberries, followed by desserts of pumpkin pie and cake, the First Thanksgiving is believed by historians to have had a very different menu of spiced dishes prepared in a traditional Native American style, with game including: venison, wild ducks and swans and potentially cod, shellfish, eel and even lobster.

Wild turkey. The bird most associated with American Thanksgiving, which becomes the roast and centerpiece of the meal. It has become custom that the President of the USA annually spares a turkey’s life by ‘pardoning’ the bird.

Wild turkey. The bird most associated with American Thanksgiving, which becomes the roast and centerpiece of the meal. It has become custom that the President of the USA annually spares a turkey’s life by ‘pardoning’ the bird. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

Divisive History

Not all scholars or Native American groups agree with the complete popularized history of the First Thanksgiving, however. It is still debated whether the celebration at Plymouth was really the first. Historians point to other ceremonies by European settlers which predate the 1621 event.

Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé in St. Augustine, Florida is said to have invited members of the Timucua tribe to feast and hold a mass thanking god in 1565. Additionally, when British settlers reached Berkeley Hundred on Virginia’s James River, they proclaimed the date, December 4, 1619, as a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Some Native American groups feel the American Thanksgiving narrative “paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions.” As such, it is commemorated by protestors as a “National Day of Mourning” since 1970.  

Diorama showing Native Americans meeting with European settlers.

Diorama showing Native Americans meeting with European settlers. (Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ancient Harvest Festivals

The ancient origins of Thanksgiving stem from the tradition of harvest festivals stretching back long before early European colonists reached the New World.

The shift from hunting and gathering to agrarian societies focused on the domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic Revolution. A successful harvest was of major importance, dictating the stability and health of a community. Harvest celebrations marked the end of summer, and were a time of feasting and paying tribute to gods for bounty, prosperity and good health.

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt, shows a scene of a plowing farmer. 1200 BC

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt, shows a scene of a plowing farmer. 1200 BC ( Public Domain )

These harvest festivals were common around the globe in one form or another for millennia. It was believed by some early agrarian societies that cultivated crops contained spirits which caused them to grow. As such, it was seen as vital that the crops were harvested, or the spirits would languish in the plants, and eventually wreak revenge against the farmers. Harvest and ritual celebrated the release or defeat of these spirits.

A harvest festival honoring Min, god of vegetation and fertility was celebrated by ancient Egyptians. At the end of harvest (held in the springtime), a grand parade was said to be held in which the Pharaoh would feature. The Egyptian farmers would pretend to weep and mourn so as to fool the spirits that were living in the crop. This ruse was apparently to blindside the spirits so they wouldn’t suspect they were about to be harvested.

Ancient Greeks gave thanks to Demeter, goddess of fertility and harvest. Romans honored the goddess of agriculture, Ceres (from which the word cereal is derived) and another festival was held to honor gods of grain.

Ancient Celtic peoples had robust harvest festivals, and these traditions have continued for thousands of years.

In Jewish tradition, the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Booths) is observed in the fall in which special meals are eaten from a booth, hut or sukkah, in thanks for the protection and care of god.

Aerial view of Sukkah booths where Jewish families eat their meals and sleep throughout the Sukkot holiday.

Aerial view of Sukkah booths where Jewish families eat their meals and sleep throughout the Sukkot holiday. ( CC BY 2.5 )

The ancient roots of harvest festivals stretch back to a time when hunger was a constant threat and societies felt at the mercy of the gods.  Thanksgiving now is a thriving, modern holiday—a blend of religious and secular—celebrated still around the world in various ways, with honor being paid to the bounty of our lives, shared among strangers, family and friends.

Featured image: “The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains.” ( Public Domain )

By Liz Leafloor

References

History. “History of Thanksgiving” 2015. History.com [Online] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

Hamilton, Andrew. “Thanksgiving Day as a Harvest Festival”. 2011. Counter-Currents.com [Online] Available here: http://www.counter-currents.com/2011/11/thanksgiving-day-as-a-harvest-festival/

Macphail, Cameron . “Thanksgiving: What is the history of the holiday and why does the US celebrate with turkey?” 2015. Telegraph.co.uk [Online] Available here.

Henshey, Lori. "Ancient origins of Thanksgiving harvests". 2011. Examiner.com [Online] Available here:  http://www.examiner.com/article/ancient-origins-of-thanksgiving-harvests

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