Alas, when these folk got to the United States, they didn’t arrive in the warmer parts of the East Coast as they expected to. Instead they landed in the much colder New England colony of Massachusetts at a place called Plymouth.
Unlike the Southern colonies like Georgia with its mild winters and fertile soil, Massachusetts has very cold and snowy winters. The soil is also rocky and difficult to farm. So it was in 1621 that after a very good growing season, the Pilgrims, a pious and religious people, wanted to give thanks. So the leaders of the Plymouth Plantation set aside a day in which to give thanks and enjoy the bounty of their harvest.
The first winter was hard on the Pilgrims. They were not hardy farmers, builders, and hunters. Many of them were from cities and never had to hunt or build their own houses. The only things they had in common were their religious beliefs and their desire to live in a place where they practice their religion without being persecuted by the government of their countries in Europe such as England and France.
What was the first feast in America like?
We know that the local Native Americans helped the colonists hunt and cook local foods. These natives were invited to this first harvest festival. So we can be pretty sure that they had turkey, corn, and squashes much like we do today. However, we can be reasonably sure that they didn’t have pumpkin pies and other desserts as these dishes required a lot of sugar. Sugar was a rare commodity that winter. It would take many years before the colonists learned to trade for sugar and other staples needed for this great harvest festival.
Is Thanksgiving, the fall harvest festival, celebrated in every country?
The idea of giving thanks for a good harvest has probably been celebrated in all cultures throughout history. We trace our American custom to the feast in November in 1621 but that was not the first Thanksgiving in the Americas. That honor likely goes to a fall festival in 1578 in Canada. Canada continues to celebrate Thanksgiving but it holds the holiday in the middle of October, about six weeks earlier than in the United States. Since Canada is further North of the lower 48 states, winter arrives much earlier. While the colonials in the early United States could still work the farms bringing in the crops well into November, our Canadian cousins have to start much earlier or risk losing their crops to winter snows and ice.
Do other countries celebrate Thanksgiving?
Yes, although they may not call it Thanksgiving. In Germany, the harvest festival is called Erntedankfest (Ernte=harvest, Danke= thank you) and includes such festivities as Oktoberfest which is very popular all around the world.
In Japan, Labor Thanksgiving is held on November 23rd. Other countries have fall harvest festivals in October and November including parts of Australia. This tradition in Australia was started by American whalers in the nineteenth century. This celebration is notable because November in Australia – south of the Equator – is not Fall. It is actually late Spring. Instead of racing to bring in the harvest before the heavy winter snows set in, these November celebrants are simply marking the month and not the season. In similar fashion, Australians celebrate Christmas with the traditional Santa Claus and Reindeer, but instead of sitting beside the Yule Log in the fireplace keeping Jack Frost at bay, Australians are celebrating the start of Summer – perhaps with a barbeque on the beach!
Why is Thanksgiving on a Thursday and Friday?
The Pilgrims wanted to mark the occasion by giving thanks to God. So it really is a holy day as opposed to a non-religious day like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July in the United States. The Pilgrims also wanted to avoid infringing on Sunday, which was set aside to worship God. So they set the day to be the opposite end of the week from Sunday – and so Thursday was selected. In the dark days of the American Civil War, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a national holiday meaning everybody was entitled to the day off or entitled to holiday pay if they had to work that day. President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of November.
Because Thanksgiving is only a matter of weeks before Christmas, retailers marked Thanksgiving as the official start of the Christmas holiday retail season. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, retail sales suffered as the economy struggled. Then President Franklin Roosevelt hit on the notion in 1838 that if he moved Thanksgiving up a week that it would expand the Christmas retail season and thereby increase sales. It was however, not a popular idea and in 1941, President Roosevelt signed a law saying that Thanksgiving was to be observed in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. By this time, the Thanksgiving tradition which typically extended the feasting over two to three days, became a two day holiday followed by the weekend giving most Americans four days to celebrate – and to start preparing for Christmas and New Year’s.
Erntedankfest: Ernte=harvest, Danke= thank you
Infringe: to interfere with