The practice of setting aside a day of giving thanks has been observed since ancient times throughout the world, but the origin of America’s Thanksgiving tradition is usually traced back to the Pilgrims in 1621. By today’s standards, those early settlers in Plymouth Colony (Massachusetts) had little to be thankful for. They had arrived in the New World the previous year, fleeing religious persecution. More than half of the English settlers died from starvation and cold during their first winter in America. They eventually came in contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American belonging to the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto had been kidnapped and enslaved by explorer John Smith’s men. After escaping to England, he made his way back to his tribe in America, only to find most of them had died from the plague.
In spite of his harsh experiences with the “white man,” Squanto volunteered as an interpreter and mediator between colonists and tribal leaders. He showed the settlers how to plant corn, extract sap from maple trees, and where to fish and hunt. Both the Pilgrims and Native Americans had much to lament, but they gathered together for three days in November 1621 to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”
In September 1789, Congress proposed a resolution petitioning President George Washington to establish “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Not all House members were unanimous in their resolve to give thanks and the resolution generated heated debate. It wasn’t until after pointing out that our nation’s Continental Congress had passed a similar resolution that the proponents of a Thanksgiving celebration prevailed.
In response, Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday November 26th “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.” Always an example, Washington himself donated $25 to the Presbyterian Church “to be applied towards relieving the poor.”
Through the years, various states established their own Thanksgiving holiday, some beginning as early as October and as late as January. Magazine editor and author of the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale, petitioned five U.S. Presidents for a national Thanksgiving holiday. Finally, in 1863, as civil war ripped our country apart, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Thanksgiving became only the third national holiday, alongside Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day.
Our country has enjoyed a long history of celebrating Thanksgiving. There is nothing wrong with an afternoon of feasting and football, but as with generations that went before us, may we also make Thanksgiving a day of prayer and giving thanks.2