What is Thanksgiving?
The first Thanksgiving Days in New England were harvest festivals, or days for thanking God for plentiful crops. For this reason, the holiday still takes place late in the fall, after the crops have been gathered. For thousands of years, people in many parts of the world have held harvest festivals. The American Thanksgiving Day probably grew out of the harvest-home celebrations of England.
In the United States, Thanksgiving is usually a family day, celebrated with big dinners and joyous reunions. The very mention of Thanksgiving often calls up memories of kitchens and pantries crowded with good things to eat. Thanksgiving is also a time for serious religious thinking, church services, and prayer.
The first Thanksgiving observance in America was entirely religious and did not involve feasting. On Dec. 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation, on the James River near what is now Charles City, Va. The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.
The first Thanksgiving in New England was celebrated in Plymouth less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had settled in America. The first dreadful winter in Massachusetts had killed about half the members of the colony. But new hope arose in the summer of 1621. The settlers expected a good corn harvest, despite poor crops of peas, wheat, and barley. Thus, in early autumn, governor William Bradford arranged a harvest festival to give thanks to God for the progress the colony had made.
The festival lasted three days. The men of Plymouth had shot ducks, geese, and turkeys. The menu also included clams, eel and other fish, wild plums and leeks, corn bread, and watercress. The women of the settlement supervised cooking over outdoor fires. About 90 Indians also attended the festival. They brought five deer to add to the feast. Everyone ate outdoors at large tables and enjoyed games and a military review. Similar harvest Thanksgivings were held in Plymouth during the next several years, but no traditional date was set.
How did we get the Thanksgiving Holiday?
Hale, Sarah Josepha, pronounced joh SEE fuh (1788-1879), became one of the most famous magazine editors in the United States during the 1800's. As editor of the Ladies' Magazine and, later, of Godey's Lady's Book, she helped shape the taste and thought of thousands of women. She received credit for persuading President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Of her many writings, her major surviving work is the children's poem, "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Sarah Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire.