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Thanksgiving: An American celebration

By Joan Collins

Thanksgiving ceremonies after harvests are common among many religions and in many countries. After the hard work of raising and preserving crops, people could relax knowing that they were prepared for the coming cold winters. 

Our American celebrations actually are rooted in English traditions which date from the Protestant Reformation in England during the reign of Henry VIII. The Church of England was the Established Church. The term "Puritan" was used by traditional Anglicans for those who criticized or wanted to "purify" the Church of England. 

There were two factions of Puritans. One group wanted to separate entirely from the Anglican Church and they were therefore known as "Separatists." The other segment wanted to reform or change the present church.

Both groups were among those who came to Massachusetts in 1620. Some members of this group had previously gone to the Netherlands, where they were allowed to practice their religion, but they still yearned to live and practice their faith with their English brothers.

Thus, they joined the group that boarded the Mayflower in London and headed for an unknown future in a New World.

Life in the colony was hard and some perished, but by the end of that first year, they had made much progress and there was plenty of food for the coming winter. Ever grateful for their newfound fortune, they gathered together to share their bounty in a great feast and to thank God for an abundant harvest.

There was ample food for 53 Pilgrims and 90 friendly Wampanoag Indians and their chief, Massasoit. The celebration lasted for three days!

What did they have to eat at that first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 in what is now Plymouth, Mass.? We can only conjecture about the menu and envision what was then available. Actually, the list of possibilities is phenomenal for its variety and abundance of fish, game, fruits and vegetables. There would have been no flour, as the supply they had brought with them from England had been used up. Ducks, geese, swans, venison, fish, lobsters, mussels, clams, berries,  dried fruit, grapes, pumpkins, squash, cabbage, turnips, parsnips and Indian corn could have been on the menu.

Probably the drink for most people would have been water, for it is unlikely that there would have been enough time to ferment ale or beer like they would have enjoyed in England. Possibly there could have been a bit of wine made from local berries or grapes or apples.

Was the Plymouth Thanksgiving celebration the first one held in the United States? There is evidence that an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598 predated the Massachusetts affair. Also, Virginia had a Thanksgiving feast in 1619, and Florida argued that a Thanksgiving service was celebrated on Sept. 8, 1565, in what is now St. Augustine. However, it is the great feast of the Pilgrims that has come down to us and is the memorable occasion we celebrate in America today. 

According to historians, the Pilgrims had become familiar with the Thanksgiving theme while they were refugees in Holland in the city of Leiden. While living there, they were treated well, and many had recorded their births, marriages and deaths at the Pieterskerk, a large Gothic church which still commemorates the hospitality the Pilgrims received on their way to the New World.

Another Thanksgiving observance takes place in Germany, where it is known as Erntedankfest and celebrated with a Harvest Festival, as it is in America.

In Japan, a Labor Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday on every Nov. 23; it commemorates labor and production and giving one another thanks. This holiday is rooted in an ancient Japanese harvest ceremony. 

Liberia began celebrating their Thanksgiving in 1820; it was colonized by free blacks from the United States, most of whom had been enslaved. 

The Australian territory of Norfolk Island celebrates a similar holiday which was brought to the island by the visiting American whaling ships!

Our Canadian neighbors give thanks at the close of the harvest season, which is the second Monday in October. While it is celebrated in churches, it is mostly a secular observance.

In the United States, Thanksgiving was observed on various dates in different states. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November. Because the Civil War was going on at this time, the Confederacy refused to recognize Lincoln's authority and the "nationwide" holiday did not take place until the Reconstruction in the 1870s.

Finally, on Dec. 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law which marked the fourth Thursday in November (not always the last Thursday) as the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

The Daughters of the American Revolution seek to remind their fellow citizens about our country's past so that we can more fully appreciate those who have gone before us. Being reminded of the trials and tribulations as well as the joys and blessings experienced by our forebears prompts us to remember what it means to be Americans.

Some West Virginians can trace their families back to one of the passengers who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Many more are direct descendants of people who fought for or aided the Revolutionary cause. If you are interested in learning whether you have forebears who aided the cause for American independence and would be interested in joining the Kanawha Valley Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, contact Shirley Gilkeson at 304-342-3087 or, Sue Harris at 304-757-2272 or or Carol Linger at 304-756-1418 or

Happy Thanksgiving!

Joan Collins of Hurricane is an Honorary Regent of the Kanawha Valley Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.


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