The Meaning of Thanksgiving

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We are losing Thanksgiving as retailers move Christmas sales into October. It’s being ignored and overlooked. It should be one of our favorite holidays because it is one that is not tainted with the trappings of gift-giving.

In September 1620, a small ship, the Mayflower, left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers with religious separatists searching for religious freedom and land ownership in the New World.

After a dangerous 66 days at sea, they landed near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of the Hudson River, which was their intended destination. A month later, the Mayflower moved onto Massachusetts Bay, and the passengers, later known as Pilgrims, established the village at Plymouth.

The first winter was brutal and most passengers remained on the ship where they suffered from contagious diseases. Half of the passengers died during this winter.

My friend’s ancestor was on that ship and his descendent later became Col. Travis who died at the Alamo.

Much to their amazement, come March, 1621, they were greeted by an Abenaki Indian who spoke to them in English. The Abenaki returned with another Native American named Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, a former English kidnap victim who escaped slavery and found his way home on an exploratory mission. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.

Squanto helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans. When giving thanks this year, we must remember this first Thanksgiving which was truly one of gratitude and faith.

The Protestant royalty from France and the Netherlands, adventurers, and others were making regular trips back-and-forth between Europe and New Amsterdam for years before Plymouth. My ancestors, which included the French Huguenots, once a name of derision, came over in 1607 and landed in New Amsterdam.

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that was one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.

The original festival lasted three days and we don’t know whether or not it was called Thanksgiving. Thanks to Pilgrim chronicler, Edward Winslow, we know what the meal might have been like. The Wampanoag brought five deer and they likely used Native American spices. There were no ovens and no pies as we see today. The colonists wore colorful clothing and made home brews.

In 1623, Governor Bradford declared Thanksgiving a religious feast and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1817, New York became one of the first of several states to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with strong opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. Read more here: History.com

Click the link for some heartwarming Thanksgiving stories to read to your children: The Best Thanksgiving Stories. One story is called “Cranberry Thanksgiving,” about a little girl and her grandmother who invite two very special people to Thanksgiving dinner. One is a very distinguished guest and the other is an eccentric character. The story illustrates how looks can be deceiving! This is a fabulous Thanksgiving tale with a special recipe at the end that you can bake with your children.

Be careful what you read to children on Thanksgiving. A lot of stories are meaningless and then there is the whole “let’s destroy children’s hope and faith in the future while they’re young” crowd who want to talk about battles between the Europeans and the Native Americans. The brutal battles that followed more than fifty years after the first Thanksgiving were told differently by the Native Americans and the Europeans, both capable of misunderstandings and deceit, but that is not what this holiday is about.

This is a day to be thankful for all that we have and all the wonderful people we know. For those who are religious, it is a day to thank God.

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