Brief History of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States. It is celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday in November. On this day, families gather together, and many people say prayers of thanks for the years blessings. In many homes, a big dinner of roast turkey and dressing is served. Thanksgiving is traditionally a harvest festival. Similar festivals are celebrated in many parts of the world to give thanks after the years crops have been safely harvested.
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers - an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a dangerous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth. They immediately began to build shelters, but soon they were overcome by a general sickness. Through the course of the winter 46 died, nearly half their original number. Some who became ill on the voyage and who were too sick to be moved, stayed on the Mayflower, which was anchored in Plymouth Harbor for the winter.
The first American Thanksgiving probably took place in New England. It was celebrated by the Pilgrim settlers, who established Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims had struggled bravely through a grim winter with much sickness and little food. The following spring, friendly Indians helped the settlers to plant corn, and in the autumn, the first crop was harvested. Governor William Bradford proclaimed three days of prayer and thanksgiving. The Pilgrims gave a huge feast and invited the Indian Chief, Massasoit, and 90 of his people. The custom of observing a special harvest Thanksgiving Day spread throughout the other colonies in the following years. After the American Revolution, the various states continued the custom, each one naming its own day for giving thanks. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November. The present date was established by Congress in 1941.
In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been on offer when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the turkey, whether roasted, baked or deep fried on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.
Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5 mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters. Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.