The Thanksgiving holiday is a day set aside for giving thanks to the Creator for permitting and assisting the establishment of the nation.
During the American Civil War, on the 3rd of October, in the year 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. The observance has, since that time been an annual national event.
The earliest feast of thanksgiving on record was observed in the year 1564. French Calvinists, known as Huguenots, in an effort to escape religious persecution in their native land, headed for the New World and made landfall in June of 1564, in the vicinity of the mouth of the River of May (near Jacksonville, Florida) which had been "discovered" and named by a previous French explorer. It is claimed that they held a feast of thanksgiving upon landing. They promptly set about constructing a wooden enclosure which they named Fort Caroline, in honor of their king, Charles IX.
The next celebration of thanksgiving is believed to have been held by Spanish soldiers sent to destroy the French settlement. Pedro Menendez de Aviles was a Spanish admiral sent to force the French off the land claimed by Spain. Menendez made landfall and founded St. Augustine on 08 September 1565 and celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving. His guests were the Timucua Indians. It is believed that Menedez christened the site of his landing: St. Augustine, named for the Saint's feast day on which he landed. The feast that Aviles held more than likely consisted of bean soup, according to some researchers. The Spaniards then set out to accomplish what they had come for ~ the annihilation of the French settlers. An assault on Fort Caroline resulted in the deaths of most of the French and the destruction of the settlement.
In August of 1607 the colonists led by George Popham, who attempted to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Kennebec River, on the coast of Maine, held a feast of thanksgiving.
It is popularly assumed that the colonists who established the Jamestown settlement in 1607 would have celebrated a feast of thanksgiving, as all new settlements did, despite the fact that there are no records to confirm such.
The Berkeley Hundred settlement was established on the north bank of the James River, near the mouth of Herring Creek on 04 December 1619. The thirty-eight English settlers included in their charter that: We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.
Then, in the Autumn of 1621, the Pilgrim colonists who had landed on the tip of Cape Cod, at what would become the Plymouth Colony during the year previous, held a thanksgiving feast which has, rightly or wrongly, been honored to the present-time as being the quintessential thanksgiving celebration.
A letter sent from Governor Bradford's assistant, Edward Winslow to George Morton, dated 11 December 1621, provided a first-hand description of that first thanksgiving feast in Plymouth Colony. The account was published in 1622 as part of what was titled: Mourt's Relation. The account, as it appeared in Mourt's Relation is given here:
Loving and old Friend, although I received no Letter from you by this Ship, yet forasmuch as I know you expect the performance of my promise, which was, to write unto you truely and faithfully of all things. I have therefore at this time sent unto you accordingly. Referring you for further satisfaction to our more large Relations. You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have beene here, we have built seaven dwelling houses, and foure for the use of the Plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last Spring some twentie Acres of Indian Corne, and sowed some six Acres of Barly & Pease, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with Herings or rather Shadds, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doores. Our corne did prove well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian-Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want, that we often with you partakers of our plentie. Wee have found the Indians very faithful in their Covenant of Peace with us, very loving, and readie to pleasure us: we often goe to them, and they come to us.
Descriptions of the feast have been written by historians down through the years since the event, providing a myriad of details, despite the fact that no first-hand description other than Edward Winslow's has ever existed. One descriptive narrative, written by Duane Cline, a former Assistant Governor General of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and intended for use by teachers, stated that: "For three days the Pilgrims and their Indian guests gorged themselves on venison, roast duck, goose and turkey, clams and other shell-fish, succulent eels, corn bread, hasty pudding, leeks and water-cress and other 'sallet herbes,' with wild plums and dried berries as dessert, all washed down with wine made of the wild grape". Again, despite the fact that this would not have been a first-hand account from the event, it is probably an accurate assumption in regard to the foods available at that time and place. In view of the fact that the Plymouth Colony was established along the seacoast and surrounded by wooded lands, it is a very good assumption that the people would have harvested seafood from the water and venison and other animals and birds from the forests. But how the author came to know that one of the foods with which the colonists and Indians "gorged themselves" was hasty pudding is anyone's guess.
Following the Plymouth Colony's first thanksgiving feast, there were many others throughout the burgeoning colonies. Plymouth Colony held another feast of thanksgiving on 30 July 1623 in celebration of a very good harvest. In 1630 the Massachusetts-Bay Colony celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving. The Connecticutt Colony followed with a celebration in 1639. And the Dutch colonists at New Netherland held a feast of thanksgiving in 1644.
The Thanksgiving holiday, as is celebrated at the present-time was suggested on 03 October 1789 by a proclamation issued by President George Washington:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with. good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
It appears that the annual celebration of thanksgiving, called for by President Washington's Proclamation in 1789, was not taken up by all the states in the fledgling nation. President Washington again issued a proclamation for a national day of thanksgiving in 1795.
Presidents John Adams and James Madison issued proclamations calling for thanksgiving celebrations, but it was not until President Lincoln's proclamation that the holiday received widespread approval and support. When Andrew Johnson succeeded to the office of President following Lincoln's assassination, he was urged by his cabinet to continue the celebration of Thanksgiving. Each successive President kept the tradition going until 06 October 1941 when both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution establishing the last Thursday of November as the official date for the holiday. The Senate passed an amendment in December of 1942 setting the date as the 'fourth' Thursday of November since certain years would experience five Thursdays in that month.
The traditional Thanksgiving Day feast consists of roast turkey, with filling (variously, stuffing), mashed potatoes, with cranberry sauce on the side, and, of course, pumpkin pie. Despite the fact that turkey is not mentioned by Edward Winslow in his first-hand account of the 1621 thanksgiving celebration of the Plymouth Colony ~ the one from which our present-day celebration is supposedly derived ~ it was mentioned by Governor Bradford in his memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation. Over the years the turkey became a favorite form of fowl to be roasted for holiday feasts, and it just seemed very appropriate for Thanksgiving (the most "American" of the holidays with the exception of the 4th of July), perhaps because it was a uniquely "American" bird.
Pumpkin pie has, like the turkey, taken on a unique character as an "American" treat. During the Colonial Period the potato was not widely accepted as a food staple. The pumpkin held that role because it was so versatile. Pumpkin could be prepared in many ways, from mashed to baked, and as pancakes or soup. The pumpkin provided the colonists with a staple that is low on carbohydrates, but a good source of minerals including iron, potassium and magnesium and the vitamins A, C, E and K. The pumpkin is loaded with antioxidant carotenoids, including alpha and beta-carotenes.