Thanksgiving and its Historical Antecedents


"And they went out into the fields, and gathered their vineyards, and trode the grapes and held festival, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink."  (Judges 9:27)

      Of all of the holidays to be observed in our calendar year, Thanksgiving is indeed considered the most American of them all. Yet autumnal harvest festivals of giving thanks predate both the American and Canadian observances by centuries throughout various parts of the world. Cape Cod had first been explored by Giovanni da Verrazanno in 1524, then by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, and later by Martin Pring in 1603. These explorations were quickly followed up by Samuel de Champlain in 1605 and then by John Smith in 1614.  But in both the 16th and well into the 17th Centuries, the Spanish had massacred French Protestants in St. Augustine, Florida by 1565. Ponce de León had gone to Florida to capture Native Americans to be sold as slaves in Hispaniola instead of finding his fountain of youth. The Spanish Jewish sefardíes had already settled in New México in the 1580s and 90s long enough to secure religious freedom. Native Americans had driven off Samuel de Champlain when he had attempted to settle in Massachusetts in 1606. And the London Company had already sent British settlers to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

     But it was the unique experience of 1621 when a shipload of English-speaking Pilgrims from England vía Holland aboard the Mayflower feasted with a local indigenous population on the eastern North American continent and were actually saved by them! Although the Pilgrims, religious and political refugees from mother England that they were, gave thanks for having survived much misery and disease through a relatively safe trans-Atlantic Ocean voyage, the actual three-day festival was more of an observance of a successful harvest season having been granted them by Divine Providence. From their humble beginnings, the Pilgrims had consistently thanked God, not the Native American Indians, for His assistance, sustenance, and final salvation.

    In modern English our term thank, etymologically linked with the prehistoric Germanic root thengk then thangk immediately invokes a notion of gratitude. This term originally connoted thoughtfulness. Even in modern German gedanken means thought, therefore producing Danke schön  (Thank you) or simply danke for thanks. Amazingly, our modern word think is a direct descendant of this root word, as in the jokingly "think, thank, thunk". Thus, the noun form thank ultimately goes back to this concept of thought. A 12th-century translation of the Bible into Middle English, according to the gospel of St. Matthew, may serve to illustrate this:

                "From the heart come evil thanks." Matthew 15:19 (circa 1140 A.D.)

Now a much later translation of this same Biblical passage in the Authorized Version of the Bible reveals:

                "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts." Matthew 15:19 (early 18th Century)

    So throughout diachronic time and over quiet centuries, the connotation of thought came to be "favorable thoughts", gradually becoming thoughts of "good will", which ultimately  turned into gratitude. By the 14th Century, the term thank found its plurality in thanks. Finally, by the 15th Century, our current two-word gracious phrase of Thank you found common usage among the English-speaking populace throughout Europe and the British Isles, which became a shortened form for the original complete sentence I thank you

    The tradition of Thanksgiving, as we Americans recognize it today, indeed did not originate with the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, though a momentous historical event it was. The tradition of giving thanks for a bountiful fall harvest season goes back to Biblical times, perhaps to the land of Canaan around 1200 B.C. The Hebrews adopted this seasonal custom and named it The Feast of the Tabernacles, so named because the celebrants erected tents and booths of olive, myrtle, and palm branches in the courtyards of their homes and in the house of their god of Abraham to symbolize previous times when they had been a people without a national identity or homeland. This was followed by much food, drink, and merriment. And after a joyous celebration of the autumnal harvest had been dutifully reaped, Moses had commanded:

                "Thou shalt observe the feast of the tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in thy corn and thy wine. And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow, that are within thy gates. Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the Lord thy God."   (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

    Similar to the harvest festival of the Jews was that of the ancient Greeks, which was called the Thesmophoria. This harvest holiday observance was held in honor of their goddess of agriculture, fertility, and marriage Demeter. This fall celebration held during the month of November (which lasted three days and honored married women only) was held high on a hill overlooking the Sea of Colais. Two women of noble rank and in superior standing were selected to preside as official ministrants in a performance of religious duties and to prepare a sacred meal of rice, meat and vegetables, resembling much of our present-day Thanksgiving repast. After their return to Athens, three more days of festivity followed in merry celebration, replete with dancing, a sacrificial cow and pig, fresh fruits from the vine, and concluded with offerings to their deity.

    The ancient Romans held a harvest festival called Cerelia, from which our modern words cereal and the star Ceres are derived (since this star rises in the East at "cereal time" or breakfast time). This autumnal banquet was held on October 4th, yet in this Latinized tradition, fasting had become part of the ritual, which is also a practice observed in many other cultures' giving of thanks. They sacrificed a sow and a portion of their grain harvest to be cut and given to their goddess of harvest Ceres, hence the association with grain and cereal. This deified donation was usually followed up by sportive merriments and activities in the fields, ultimately leading to the ceremonial meal of gratitude, later accompanied by fresh wines. Other cultures of the Earth's more remote historical past that honored the autumn harvest with gratitude include the Sumerians and other cultures of the Tigrus-Euphrates River valley area of the world.

    Back on North American soil, even other earlier Thanksgiving celebrations had included a prayer service that took place in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Another robust feast of giving thanks occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in late October of 1630.

    Our current term grace, often recited before a meal as a thankful prayer, comes to us from the Latin gratus meaning "pleasing", which passed into English vía the Old French grâce.  Modern English descendants include gracious, ingrate, grateful, ungrateful, gratify, gratuity, gratuitous, disgrace, graciousness, and the vernacular gratis, meaning "free". Modern Spanish's gracias ("thank you" or "thanks be to") and the French grace along with the Italian's grazie, all of similar connotations, derived from Classical Latin's noun form gratia signifying "pleasure", "favor", or "thanks". Spanish renders Día de acción de gracias for Thanksgiving and French has Jour de grace, literally "Day of grace". 

    Here is a grace, which honors the cyclic nature of Life itself, to be recited before any holiday repast:   


   Remembering that sacrifice
is the law of this world,
We give thanks to these plants and animals
who have sacrificed their own lives
That we might live.

In return we vow
to sacrifice ourselves,
Surrendering our hearts to love,
our minds to truth,
And our bodies to service,
so that all might awaken to the Real World
And to the Eternal Life of Consciousness Itself.

    Gratitude and congratulations share a common lingüistic bonding, and it has been suggested by comparative lingüists that these two terms are related to Italian's gradevole, denoting "pleasing" or "pleasure", and to Spanish's agradecer meaning "to appreciate". Interestingly, the modern English word agree is a close cousin or offshoot from gratus, disguised though it be today. Gracious ultimately derived from the Latin gratiosus, and grateful was an Anglo-Saxon variant on the term.

    A poem by Stella Craft Tremble, entitled Thanksgiving Time, invokes the subtle tones, dark hues, somber timbres, and the biting chill of late November while conjuring up many images and reflections during a time to be grateful for a bountiful harvest:

The autumn season finishes the year,
            Hangs harvest moon in a cooler atmosphere.
            Grain ripens: wheat and oats leap into shocks,
            We hasten toward the year's last equinox!
            Now winter hides behind a northern sky,
            Floats in each wavering wind that flurries by.
            Thanksgiving time, corn hurries toward the barn,
            As ice forms isles on meadow brook and tarn.
            At borderland of every fertile field,
            Marauding crows peck at remaining yield
            Of grain, dropped by machine or man, unseen...
            They chatter as they sweep the furrows clean.
            Apples, like small red worlds, plunge down the night
            On orchards, in mounds beautiful and bright.
            Fall changes little as the years swing by,
            The prairie folk are glad...and so am I!
            For every single blessing gives a reason
            That we rejoice at this Thanksgiving season!

    So much of the imagery, art, literature and folklore surrounding Thanksgiving revolve around a somewhat cozy, amicable and hardy banquet among "the brave Pilgrims and the friendly Indians". Such names as Squanto, Samoset, and Pocahontas soon come to mind. But in order to understand the underlying events and undercurrents of religious dissent that led to the landing of the Pilgrims in New England in the early 17th Century, we must go beyond the oft romanticized storybook feast of fantasy.


    In the winter of 1620, one hundred two English colonists, around 35 of them being Pilgrims, had landed for settlement in southeastern Massachusetts. The area had been previously explored by English captain John Smith who led the Virginia Colony and had coined the terms New England and Plimouth Plantation in 1614. Yet the autumnal harvest gathering that followed a year later was not the first of its kind on North American soil. In 1578, English settlers in Newfoundland, in what is present-day Canada, had held a harvest festival, replete with fish, fowl, and vegetable. In 1607, the Popham Colony celebrated an equinoxal feast in what is today the state of Maine. And in 1618, a settlement of wayward drifters in Virginia called Berkeley's Hundred named December 4th a day of Thanksgiving to honor the safe arrival of more of their newcomers to the New World. But in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had plenty of reason to celebrate and to be thankful.

    The terms pilgrim and pilgrimage (peregrino and peregrinaje in Spanish) come to us from the Latin peregrinus, vía the Provençal derivative pelegrin, meaning "foreign". This, in turn, was an etymological descendant of pereger connoting "on a journey" or "abroad", a compound formed from per (through) and ager (country), from which we ultimately received our modern word agriculture

    The Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony in 1620 belonged to the most uncompromising group of Puritans, the Separatists, who had severed all ties with the Church of England. They hailed from a congregation established in Scrooby, England. It was the expressed intention of these Puritanical English Protestants "to purify" the Church of England by eradicating everything in the church that seemed to have no biblical context or justification. They were members of a group who had slipped away to Holland in 1607 to escape religious persecution. The Calvinistic Dutch granted them asylum and political toleration but restricted them, for the most part, to unskilled labor. After ten long and laborious years in the Dutch city of Leyden, these English refugees had wearied of their struggle for basic survival. With having witnessed their children taking on Dutch habits, manners, language, and customs while drifting away to become sailors, soldiers, manservants, or common laborers, they once again longed for English ways, for more social mobility, and for their beloved Union Jack. "Our posterity would be in danger to degenerate and to become corrupted" became their motto and oft repeated battle cry. If their common "posterity" would not be tolerated on Dutch (foreign) soil, then the idea of transplanting themselves to the New World suddenly looked more promising. Although King James did not promise these journeying pilgrims outright toleration if they set up a colony elsewhere, he did agree to leave them alone and grant them some measure of independence "to connive at them". 

    So the Leyden escapees group secured a land grant patent from the Virginia Company and set up a joint-stock company destined for the New World. In 1620, one hundred two men, women, and children led by William Bradford crammed aboard a tightly compacted, stuffy three-masted ship called the Mayflower and hit the high seas. Their ranks included both "saints" (people having been elected by God Himself for their mutual salvation and protection) and "strangers" (those yet to receive Divine Grace). This latter group included John Alden, a cooper by trade, and Miles Standish, a professional soldier hired to organize their defenses against any "Indian attacks". Many aboard the Mayflower were seeking potential upcoming economic opportunities in the Virginia tobacco plantations as well, where the sky was to become the limit.

    So high seas and stormy, tempestuous waters took the seafarers on a trans-Atlantic voyage that ultimately led them to Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination of Virginia. But some historians believe that the Dutch had bribed the captain of the Mayflower to sail north in order for the ship and crew not to settle near New Amsterdam. Very possibly, as it has been speculated, maybe the Mayflower had no particular destination to begin with when it set sail. Heading south, rough waters veered them into Provincetown where they sought repose in a safe harbor and haven. Since the Pilgrims were now far beyond any restrictions imposed by any organized government or King James, 41 of them entered into a formal agreement to abide by the laws to be made by their chosen leaders of their own choosing. Thus was born the Mayflower Compact, giving a fairly democratic foundation for the Plymouth Colony. This written document of demos cratos or "people rule" (from the two Greek words leading to our modern term of democracy) could possibly have been the preamble to Lewis and Clark's agreement of self-rule that they had made with Sacagawea some 185 years later. Yet it wasn't uniquely the first "libertarian" document of its kind: the Iroquois Confederacy and the framers of the Republic of Iceland had clearly antedated the year of 1620 with similar freedom-giving documents and declarations. 

    The following poem entitled The First Thanksgiving Day, by Alice Williams Brotherton, captures the flavor and essence of the Pilgrims' experience and how we are to be thankful to this day:

In Puritan New England a year had passed away
    Since first beside the Plymouth coast the English Mayflower lay,
    When Bradford, the good Governor, sent fowlers forth to snare
The turkey and the wild fowl, to increase the scanty fare:
    "Our husbandry hath prospered, there is corn enough for food,
    Though 'the pease be parched in blossom, and the grain indifferent good'
    Who blessed the loaves and fishes for the feast miraculous,
    And filled with oil the widow's cruse, He hath remembered us!
    "Give thanks unto the Lord of Hosts, by whom we all are fed,
    Who granted us our daily prayer, 'Give us our daily bread!'
    By us and by our children let this day be kept in for aye,
    In memory of His bounty, as the land's Thanksgiving Day."
    Each brought his share of Indian meal the pious feast to make,
With the fat deer from the forest and the wildfowl from the brake.
    And chanted hymn and prayer were raised, though eyes with tears were dim,
    "The Lord He hath remembered us, let us remember Him!"
    Then Bradford stood up at their head and lifted up his voice:
    "The corn is gathered from the field, I call you to rejoice;
    Thank God for all His mercies, from the greatest to the least,
    Together we have fasted, friends, together let us feast.
    "The Lord who led forth Israël was with us in the waste:
    Sometime in light, sometime in cloud, before us He hath paced;
    Now give Him thanks, and pray to Him who holds us in His hand
    To prosper us and make of this a strong and mighty land!"
    From Plymouth to the Golden Gate today their children tread,
    The mercies of that bounteous Hand upon the land are shed;
    The "flocks are on a thousand hills", the prairies wave with grain,
    The cities spring like mushrooms now where once was desert plain.
    Heap high the board with plenteous cheer and gather to the feast,
    And toast that sturdy Pilgrim band whose courage never ceased.
    Give praise to that All-Gracious One by whom their steps were led,
    And thanks unto the harvest's Lord who sends our "daily bread".


    Now the Puritans (from the Latin purus "clean", related to Sanskrit's putás "purified") had come to America in the late 16th Century to escape depravity and error and not to tolerate it in their New Zion. Moderation in all things, with the unique exception of piety, was the Puritan guideline or model, and it applied to sexual activity as well. Puritans, especially those of the upper class, enjoyed secular (non-religious or un-Christian) music, wore colorful clothing, and imbibed prodigious quantities of rum. "Drink is in itself a good creature of God" spoke the good Reverend Increase Mathers in 1608 "but the abuse of strong drink is from Satan." 

    Yet, according to Tindall & Shi's América: A Narrative History, the portrayal of the typical sour, prudish Puritan, hostile to anything that gave one pleasure, is fallacious and distorted. Oftentimes they quite openly acknowledged natural human instincts and desires. Churches occasionally expelled male and female partners for failing to satisfy their lover's sexual needs. One Puritan minister stressed that intimacy between partners was a necessary component of a successful marriage. But still, sexual activity outside of sacred marriage was strictly forbidden, as New England court records amply show us with numerous cases of adultery and fornication, and abundant ledgers show of men having been jailed, whipped, fined, and disenfranchised for coitus with an unwed woman.

     The Puritans who settled Massachusetts, unlike the Separatists of Plymouth, proposed only to form a purified version of the Anglican Church. They believed that they could remain loyal to the Church of England, to the unity of church and state, and to the principle of compulsory uniformity. But their remoteness from their native England led them to adopt a congressional form of church government identical with that of their Pilgrim Separatist counterparts, and for that matter, little different from the practice of the southern Anglicans.

    Now the Separatists, (from Latin's past participial separare "to arrange apart") as somewhat political refugees in their own right, had rebelled against the rites and discipline of the Church of England. They felt that the church had not done enough to reform itself since King Henry the Eighth had divided the Church of England from the Catholic Church in 1534. So in 1607, the Separatists emigrated to Holland in search of more religious tolerance and freedom to worship, and to establish a new religious community there. They inferred that "God is on our side" and saw their predicament much like a divinely inspired morality play to be enacted on foreign soil. Their transplanted settlement in Holland lasted for only twelve years, however, and the group uprooted themselves once again, and many sailed west to the New World.

    So on December 26, 1620, the Mayflower anchored safely in Plymouth harbor and stayed there until April of 1621. This harbor was chosen due to its cleanly cleared fields by the native inhabitants, recently planted corn and vegetables, and most importantly for its "brook of fresh water". But they mistook the Wampanoag Native settlements as being "wilderness" through their European eyes, mainly because the original village of Patuxet had been devastated from the severe plagues of 1616-1618. The Pilgrims's supplies had been depleted from the tiring, gruesome voyage. Unsanitary conditions and a monotonous diet of molding cheese, pickled beef, stale bread, and dirty water had plagued them after nine long weeks at sea. They couldn't plant crops due to it being winter. Many in the group died or perished in the remaining countryside. Come April, only 55 out of the original pack of 102 settlers were still alive!

    Yet the Mayflower served to provide shelter, refuge from the elements, and support for the Pilgrims while they built and occupied their dwellings amid passing winter snows. But exposure and disease had indeed displayed their wrath. Rampant plagues such as smallpox and influenza had cursed and consequently dwindled much of the Native populations as well on both the North and South American continents. It was only with the assistance of the Wampanoag indigenous tribe that the colonists ever survived at all. It came to be their sôle salvation.

     Now, through these somewhat amicable, newly found friendly relations with the neighboring Wampanoag Indians (whose name means "People of the First Eastern Light") in the springtime of 1621, the Pilgrims met Tisquantum, later to be renamed Squanto, (? - 1622). He was an Indian from the village of Patuxet who, it has been said, was taken stowaway as a boy in 1605 by a British captain to England. There he supposedly spent nine years and had gone to Spain, escaped slavery from there, and had returned safely to England. But the new settlers to the region, who now called themselves 'English colonists', had discovered, plundered, and even stolen Wampanoag supplies such as corn from their storage pits, beads and ornaments off of their gravesites, and baskets and pottery stored in their domelike homes called wetus.

    In 1611, Captain Thomas Hunt captured over 30 Wampanoag men to sell as slaves in Spain: twenty of them were from Squanto's native village of Patuxet, and seven others hailed from the hamlet of Nauset. By 1619, Squanto sailed back to Cape Cod with a Thomas Dermer, bypassing his original plans to return to North America vía Newfoundland. Hence, he had spoken the English language well with the Pilgrims, for he had learned much of it in England. Furthermore, he had taught the settlers how to grow maize (corn), squash, and shown them how to hunt and fish in a quite alien and unfamiliar territory. Squanto was one of the first valiant members of the Wampanoag people to reach a neutrality and peace with the Pilgrim colonists. In all, Squanto had traversed the Atlantic Ocean six times perhaps, twice as a British captive, once as an indentured slave in Spain, and taken altogether had lived in England, Newfoundland, Maine, Spain, and in Massachusetts. As a benevolent translator, mentor in the  harvest of gardens and fields, as international ambassador who had traveled and encountered much more of the 17th Century world than had any Pilgrims at the time, Squanto had become the necessary ingredient and quintessential survival seed of Plymouth, especially during the first two years of its inception. Squanto had done for the Pilgrims what Sacagawea had done for the future Lewis and Clark expedition almost two centuries onward: they both had served as interpreters, guides, and had become to the colonizing explorers a passageway to safety and to ultimate survival. Doña Marina La Malinche had served a similar purpose to Hernán Cortés in the conquest of México and the Aztec empire about a century before Squanto's time. William Bradford had called Squanto "an instrument of God sent for our good beyond all expectation." Another Massasoit Indian named Hobbomok was sent to live among the Pilgrims for several years to serve as guide and ambassador in the summer of 1621, having set up trading outposts for them at the mouths of the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers in present-day Maine. The Pilgrims, indeed, had good reason to feel grateful.

    Though most history books have romanticized Squanto as being a hero among the Pilgrims' colony at Plymouth, there is ample historical evidence that he had attempted to turn the Pilgrims against Massasoit, ally to the English invaders. Yet, William Bradford had bonded well with Squanto who had become his trusted interpreter, while Miles Standish had befriended and bonded strongly with Hobbamock. Both Standish and Hobbamock had been trained warriors in their respective cultures.

    So, during the winter of 1622, Squanto had been laboring long and hard to overthrow Massasoit in order to become the Pokanoket's supreme leader or sachem. Furthermore, to spread fear further, he claimed that the Pilgrims possessed the plague and could unleash its lethal destruction at will! Thus, by requesting that each village pay him tribute, he could therefore  prevent such a catastrophic epidemic from occurring. Squanto even prompted the Pilgrims to attack Massasoit. In the end, he wasn't to be trusted fully by either party, as a growing  rivalry and suspicious jealousy continued to mount between him and Hobbamok. The quasi mysterious circumstances surrounding Squanto's death in November of 1622 have pointed to possible poisoning by Massasoit himself.

    Yet history ultimately proved that the Wampanoag, like many other indigenous "native" American cultures, were first befriended and sadly betrayed in the end by the newly arrived European explorers on their "New World" continent. Their language of Wôpanâak, which had been spoken for thousands of years in parts of present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island, was a puzzling one to learn for the newly arrived colonists due to its multiple syllable patterns and long words encompassing an entire sentence in English. Our modern vegetable delight of succotash is a direct descendant of the Wampanoag word: sukahtash. By autumn of that year when the Wampanoag people were honoring their observance of the harvest season called Keepunumuk, the colonists had reaped a ripened bumper crop of corn, had acquired a flourishing fur trade, a fledgling tobacco industry down south in Virginia, and had accumulated an ample supply of lumber for shipment. To honor and celebrate their having survived the ordeals of a harsh and rigorous winter, they held a three-day harvest feast and jamboree in the honorable company of their sachem or Chief Massasoit and in the presence of the Wampanoags themselves. This one historically prototypical event provided the inspiration for what has since become our mythical traditional holiday of Thanksgiving. And without Wampanoag corn or maize, there never would have been a harvest celebration in 1621.

     Within only one single generation, however, relations between the two cultures had deteriorated to a point of outright warfare over land rights. A "victory" over the Native people came shortly after the burning of the Pequot fort in 1637. Another "triumph" came when Massasoit's son Metacom, renamed Philip, was killed at the end of the "King Philip's War" in 1676. Native and European relations, sadly, were to remain strained for centuries to come. To the surviving Wampanoag people of our own time, our Thanksgiving observance is a harsh and painful reminder to them of the arrival of the British invasion into their rightful homeland, and of the ensuing betrayal and bloodshed that followed.

    Tragically, much of the devastating ruination of the indigenous populations of North America in the 17th and 18th Centuries resulted from mass epidemics of smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, and scurvy. Neither the Pilgrims nor the Native American "Indians" had the medical or scientific knowledge nor experience with germ theory and its subsequent spread of disease. No American Indian healers, shamans, or curanderos could offer any antidote or cure from such contamination while the newly arrived European settlers seemed to have been blessed with abundant immunities to such a curse. The indigenous religions offered no explanations and provided no cosmic cures. The Europeans, and the British in particular, interpreted the pandemic diseases as Manifest Destiny, as part of "God's will against the heathens". Many Native Americans, sadly, ended up succumbing to alcoholism, surrendering to the pressures of Christian conversion, or simply committing suicide. Ironically, such plagues had helped to prompt a warm reception in Plymouth from the Wampanoag tribe, and Chief Massasoit eagerly allied himself with the Pilgrims because smallpox had so weakened his village that he feared conquest by the neighboring Narragansetts to the west.

    Come fall of 1621, the settlers harvested their first crops. But if it weren't for such aboriginal native American staples like corn, squash, beans, pumpkin, potato, and other fruits and vegetables, the Pilgrims would literally have starved to death, for none of the seeds brought aboard the Mayflower, with the only exception being barley, yielded any usable crops. Divine Providence was to become their guiding savior.

    So Governor William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, colonists-turned-settlers and 90-plus Native Americans alike gathered peaceably around a bounteous table of plentitude in an eternal gesture of communal unity. The 90 Wampanoag men were brought along in case if war were to break out instead of peace. They savored games together, displayed their different types of arms to one another, and traded off hand-crafted artwork, articles of clothing, furs, and even hats. In one of the only first-hand chronicled accounts of the actual feast from one of our Pilgrim Forefathers comes a 115-word letter written by Edward Winslow:

        "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

    Over the decades that followed, days of thanksgiving became more frequent in Puritan New England and debate about making the celebration a holiday grew. Later colonists, who had arrived in the New World after 1621, believed in the strict division between secular and ecclesiastical powers as well, in the separation between church and state, and that any authority to declare days of thanksgiving should lie with the church, not with the state. Yet eventually, with the passing of good time, the boundary between religious and civil services became less strict. By the 18th Century, the governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were proclaiming an autumn Thanksgiving celebration of fasting, prayer, and feasting. In the year 1719 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thanksgiving Day fell on October 29th. The term Thanksgiving had long been well known to the English, but it was never associated with festivals nor with celebrations of any kind.

    Our term feast comes to us from Old French’s feste circa 1225 A.D. The Latin variation on this term was festus, then becoming  festa, and finding its plurality in festum. This Latin root ultimately produced our modern terms festive, festal and festival, meaning “joyous”, with added connotations of “day(s) for religious observance or periodic celebration”. Festival, coming from the Middle English festivalis, means “a time of day for feasting or celebration.” These two concepts soon became associated with eating a rich, elaborate meal in honor of someone, a god, or for some special occasion. Modern Spanish has fiesta meaning "party", with its diminutive in fiestecita, and French has fête. Hence, a día de fiesta or jour de fête came to mean not only the English's holiday, but also quite literally “day of feasting”. And such was the case with the European Pilgrims and the American Wampanoag Indians in 1621.


    During the American Revolution, the expressing of gratitude in openness and days of public thanksgiving focused on the goals and successes of the Continental Army. The defeat of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, marking a pivotal turning point in the Revolutionary War, prompted the first national day of thanksgiving during the month of October of 1777. This marked the first occasion that the newly formed Thirteen Colonies honored a common holiday observance. And on December 18, 1777, the Continental Congress officially declared a "day of solemn thanksgiving and praise". After the British surrender at Yorktown in October of 1781, Congress began routinely to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, beginning to show signs of celebration in the month of November. By 1840, Thanksgivings were being celebrated in such states as far west as Missouri, Indiana (the "land of the Indians"), Iowa, Illinois, and even in Michigan. The honoring of our Pilgrim Forefathers' struggle for religious tolerance and their subsequent safe arrival in New England (and the inestimable agricultural contribution made on the part of the Wampanoag people) was also being joyously observed in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, and in Wisconsin. 

    Then in 1846,  Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular and influential magazine Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine, became a key figure and the central force behind making Thanksgiving an annual national holiday, to be observed for the posterity of the United States. In her magazine, Hale wrote editorials both urging and promoting the holiday, with features on how to celebrate it "properly".

    In 1863, then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln announced two national days of thanksgiving, not one! The first was to be held during the month of August, to commemorate the victory of the Union Army at Vicksburg. On October 3rd of that same year, Mr. Lincoln proclaimed a nationwide, annual autumnal Thanksgiving Day to be observed on the last Thursday in November. With a day of official gratitude now considered a holiday, patriotism, national fervor, and both religious and civil observances began to surface and blend into one single celebration.


    After many decades of relative calm, the First World War brought a change in the celebration. Sugar, meat, and grain products needed for troops abroad "on the front", were scrupulously avoided by homemakers on the home front. But America's Great Depression of the 1930s brought the greatest change in Thanksgiving during the 20th Century. Due to a hastened need for a nation's economic recovery, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the date of the holiday's observance in 1939. In that year, he announced that the date of Thanksgiving would be moved to a week earlier in the month, thus allowing for further expansion of the Christmas buying season, a chance he took, possibly, to help a crippled economy. Now for the first time, the Christmas holiday shopping season, with all of its department store Santa and mistletoe icons, came to be associated with Thanksgiving and all of its Pilgrimèd images, thus creating a "seasonal fusion" between the two holiday observances. A nationwide debate over this was soon to break out.

    So on May 20, 1941, President Roosevelt returned Thanksgiving to its original date, to the last Thursday of the month. The holiday observance wasn't to become celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November until after December 26, 1941, when on that date Public Law Number 379 mandated it. Thus, Thanksgiving Day now could only be observed between the dates of November 22nd thru November 28th. And to this day it remains so. Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1939, was the last time ever that Thanksgiving would be observed on a fifth Thursday in the month.

    Now that Thanksgiving had become officially recognized on the gubernatorial level, parades in observance to the holiday began to spring up in local communities, some quite humble and others much more elaborate. In 1921, Gimbel's Department Store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania inaugurated the first store-sponsored Thanksgiving Day parade. This was promptly followed up by Macy's annual parade only three years later in 1924 in New York City, remaining today as one of television's most televised Thanksgiving Day events.


    Of all of the symbols that have come to represent Thanksgiving, the turkey suggests the holiday most of all. Along with an abundance of venison and fish, this stately bird has been noted in the scanty writings and diaries left from that epic Pilgrims' feast. Wild turkey indeed ran rampant in México and Central América as far back as the early 15th Century. Tame Mexican turkeys were then brought to Europe by the Spaniards, shortly after the arrival of their gold-thirsty conquistador Hernán Cortés in the Aztecan capital city of Tenochtitlán in 1519.  In Náhuatl, a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family (along with Zuni and Navajo) is the Aztec word guajolotl (turkey buzzard). By 1530, the wild turkey was well known and recognized throughout the northern parts of Spain's most recently acquired territory of Nueva España, in today's American Southwest and parts of northern México. In 1783, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey become our national bird, but the somewhat less aggressive, portly, gobbling avian was quickly ousted by the more predatory, aggressive, quicker-witted bald eagle.

    Cranberries entered the Thanksgiving picture in an interesting, "back door" sort of way: the Cape Cod Indians called cranberries by their indigenous term ibimi, literally "bitter berry". According to the Pilgrims, the pink blossom of the plant closely resembled the head of a crane, the bird. So the tasty, bitter-sweet fruits came to be called crane berries, eventually being shortened to cranberries. But the Pilgrims, who never addressed themselves by that term, never had cranberries or pumpkin pie at their feast in 1621. Nor did they ever use the term "Thanksgiving" in relation to their intercultural feast. Many of the North American indigenous tribes on the continent during the 17th and 18th Centuries used cranberry poultices to draw out venom from arrow wounds. The brightly colored red cranberry juice provided them a dye for their rugs and blankets, as well. And by mixing cranberries with dried venison marinated in its own fat, they made a food supplement they called pemmican. Shaped into small cakes and baked for hours in the torrid sunshine, pemmican provided much nourishment and quick energy for hunting and gathering purposes. The colonist settlers quickly assimilated the cranberry into many savory recipes for future meals and for safe winter storage.


    Many literary works have illuminated the Thanksgiving holiday such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807-1882) classic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish, which tells of the romance between Standish and Priscilla Mullins, then of her subsequent marriage to John Alden. Other works include Truman Capote's (1924-1984) true-to-life account of his childhood memory in The Thanksgiving Visitor, a short story of his conflict with a schoolmate and bully, and of their unexpected holiday dinner together. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) paints a bleak, dark picture of the Thanksgiving holiday in his short story John Inglefield's Thanksgiving, first published in 1840. And William Sidney Porter, whose pen name was O. Henry (1862-1910) pokes fun at overeating at Thanksgiving time in his whimsical, psychologically insightful short story classic Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen. A chronicle novel entitled The Plymouth Adventure, a dramatic narrative bringing to life the early 17th century trans-Atlantic Ocean voyage of the Mayflower as well as such historical figures as Massasoit and Squanto, was  written by Ernest Gebler and published in 1950. A most superb historical account of events can be found in Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, a literary gem from 2006.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Hollywood and the motion picture industry have yet to capitalize on this national treasure of a holiday observance, though Xavier Koller's Squanto: A Warrior's Tale (1994) may be considered a good cinématic beginning. Also, Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) brings us back to the Virginia Colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and to Captain John Smith's exploits with Pocahontas, vividly recreated on location with little dialogue and a beautiful musical score.

    In Canada, Thanksgiving is observed on the second Monday in October. In 1957, a proclamation from the capital city Ottawa was given, stating the decree: " thank Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favored." This Canadian Thanksgiving, too, has its roots in harvest home festivals, in fasting, and in the civil days of public giving of thanks. The unique limelight that Thanksgiving holds in the United States, however, is that this "holy day" is intricately linked and deeply rooted in the founding of the country, thus contributing to a sense of historical national unity and to a prideful mutually shared identity. Since both the United States and Canada set aside a day of giving thanks nationally for a bountiful autumn harvest, Thanksgiving can truly be said to be uniquely North American.

    Such names as Minister Elder Brewster, John Alden, Captain Miles Standish, Governor William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Squanto, and Samoset bring to mind and heart the spirit of Thanksgiving historically. Thus, in New England today, December 21st has been officially proclaimed Forefathers' Day. Such culinary delights as roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, candied yams, squash, cranberries, corn, lima beans, succotash, string beans, pumpkin pie, and fine drink stir up aromas, savory images, and fond memories of our most precious of American holidays. May we all find thanks and gratitude for the plenteous bounty with which Nature has provided and endowed us all here on planet Earth, on this and every forthcoming fourth Thursday in the colorful months of Novembers ahead.


"Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe;
 Come get you down; for the press is full, the vats overflow."  

           (Joel 3:13)

"A grateful thought toward heaven
  Is of itself a prayer."

            --Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

"Gratitude is the sign of noble souls."

for more on this holiday, visit:   

To read a short story of fantasy: The Ghost of Thanksgiving:



Please continue to Lingüistic Sources of Hallowe'en.

Hallowe'en poem: Winds of October

Day of the Dead/Día de los muertos

Origins of Christmas

Origins of St.Valentine's Day

Origins of Easter

Language Families

The Indo-European Family Of Languages

Indigenous Languages of Alaska and Siberia


Tales of B'rer Rabbit, as Spun by Uncle Remus

California Dreamin'

Chilean Eclipse

About the Author

Methodologies in Foreign Language Teaching

The History of the Guitar in Spain w/ YOU TUBE video

Essay: Is Academia Purely 'Academic'?      

Artificiality in Foreign Language Teaching

Anti Semantic: What's in a Word?         
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