While most of us think of the first Thanksgiving as the one celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, giving thanks for the “fruits of their labor” at harvest time was practiced well before then. It was pretty common to set a day aside for giving thanks to God in England and other parts of Europe around the time the Pilgrims came to America in 1620.
Routine celebrations in America were held in what was known as the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607. Ships bringing supplies from England were essential to survival and the early settlers gave thanks on the day the ships arrived.
The Native Americans, led by Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who lived with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had previously been enslaved in England where he learned their language. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit gave food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
A celebration of their first successful growing season was held at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. The celebration lasted three days and included 53 pilgrims from the Mayflower (all that was left of the original 100) and 90 Native Americans. The feast included deer, flint corn, cod, bass, and various types of fowl and other dishes which the Native Americans and the Pilgrims contributed. As more colonies were established in the new world, they each celebrated their Thanksgiving at different times.
Sarah Joelspha Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, campaigned for 20 years to make Thanksgiving a holiday of the nation, and in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Over the next few years, this date changed several times until October 6, 1941, Congress declared the fourth day in November, beginning in 1942, to be the official day to celebrate Thanksgiving.
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