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How Thanksgiving Came to Be

Photo by marekuliasz on Shutterstock

Almost every culture in the world holds a celebration of thanks for a bountiful harvest. In the United States, the said celebration is called Thanksgiving Day — an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrate the harvest and other blessings of the past year, and is believed to be based on the feast of thanksgiving in the early days of the American colonies that happened almost four hundred years ago.

The Legend of the First Thanksgiving

As the legend goes, there were one hundred religious people who began to question the beliefs of the Church of England. They wanted to separate from it, so they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the New World in the 1620s. These religious people, called The Pilgrims, settled in what is now the state of Massachusetts. Arriving late, their first winter in the New World was difficult, making it hard to plant and grow crops, resulting in the death of half their colony. When spring came, the Wampanoag Iroquois Indians taught them how to grow corn (maize), and showed them other crops to grow in the unfamiliar soil, as well as how to hunt and fish.

Autumn of 1621, they harvested a lot of crops — corn, barley, beans, and pumpkins. The colonists had much to be thankful for, so a feast was planned and invited the local Iroquois chief and 90 members of his tribe. The Native Americans brought deer to roast with the turkeys and other wild game offered by the colonists. The colonists then learned how to cook cranberries and different kinds of corn and squash dishes from the Indians. In the following years, many of the original colonists celebrated the autumn harvest with a feast of thanks.

However, the Pilgrims didn't celebrate every year afterward, and they weren't the first immigrants to celebrate the day of thanksgiving. In fact, it was the Popham colony of Maine who celebrated the day of their arrival in 1607. The Pilgrims did celebrate the arrival of supplies and friends from Europe in 1630; in 1637 and 1676, the Pilgrims celebrated the defeats of the Wampanoag neighbors. The holiday was eventually continued as a tradition in New England. It's not celebrated with a feast and family, but rather with rowdy drunken men who went door to door begging for treats, which was also how the original American holidays were celebrated: Christmas, New Year's Eve and Day, Washington's birthday, as well as the 4th of July. By the mid-18th century, the rowdy behavior became carnivalesque misrule that was closer to what we think of as Halloween or Mardi Gras today.

The purpose of Thanksgiving was to carve out the sense of nationality, hospitality, civility, and happiness of the American family. So in 1988, a Thanksgiving ceremony of a different kind took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. More than four thousand people gathered, and among them were Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country and descendants of people whose ancestors had migrated to the New World. The ceremony was a public acknowledgment of the Indians' role in the first Thanksgiving 350 years ago. The feast was planned to thank the Indians for teaching them how to cook those foods. Without them, the first settlers would not have survived.