The Origin of Thanksgiving Day
In August 1620, the Mayflower, a 180-ton ship, set sail from Southampton, England. After difficulties with the vessel, resulting in her return to port, finally the voyage began. Her 102 passengers were to become some of the founding pilgrims of the United States of America, and the initiators of one of this nation’s most popular holidays.
After weeks of plowing through the tumultuous Atlantic waters, battling strong winds, pounding waves and a number of problems with their vessel, the pilgrims spotted Cape Cod, off the coast of Massachusetts. The stormy weather was brewing so strongly that they had arrived there by accident. Their intended location was off the Virginia coast, where other pilgrims had begun colonies.
Before anchoring at Plymouth Rock and disembarking to explore the territory, the pilgrims devised the “Mayflower Compact.” This was to serve as the basis for governing their new colony, where all would have the freedom to worship God as they chose.
The compact stated, “We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James…Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names; Cape Cod, the 11th of November…” (Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth).
The next few months would prove to be difficult and trying. More than half of the original pilgrims did not survive the first, long, bleak New England winter. Often, two or three people would die in one day due to infection and sickness.
But, with the approaching of spring came new hope. The survivors built homes and planted crops. They made friendships with local Indian tribes, and traded with them. The passing of winter allowed the pilgrims to labor and produce, causing the colony to flourish.
After reaping their first harvest in the fall of 1621, the pilgrims dedicated a day for thanking God for the bounty with which He had blessed them. They had endured the many hardships that came with pioneering a new land. They toiled through building an entire colony from what was simply wilderness. They were at peace with their neighbors. And they were especially grateful for their harvest. This allowed them to gather and store plenteous food and crops for the long and brutal winter ahead.
Their governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving toward God. They prepared a great feast to enjoy with family and friends—both from within the colony and with neighboring Indian tribes.
The following quotes from America’s God and Country demonstrate Bradford’s and the colony’s thankfulness for God’s protection and blessings:
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”
In reminiscing upon the colony’s success, Bradford continued, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of [God] have all the praise” (ibid.).
Clearly, pilgrims of the Plymouth colony gave God credit for all that they had. Notice the many references to God, and their acknowledgement of how He granted them so many blessings. The pilgrim’s beliefs were firmly entrenched in the realization of God’s presence and intervention in their everyday lives. Thanksgiving Day began because of this belief. It is a day dedicated to giving thanks to God for the many things we often take for granted.
Over the years, many colonies did keep Thanksgiving, but they kept various other days of thanksgiving, at different times of the year. It is a popular misconception that the pilgrims kept Thanksgiving on the same day each year following the first celebration in 1621, and that the other colonies began keeping that same day. In truth, it was a tradition always used to highlight and show gratitude for important events, such as bountiful harvests, victories in battle, etc. Whenever these took place, the colony called for the celebration of a day of thanksgiving.
In the late 1700s, during the American Revolution, the Continental Congresses suggested the yearly observance of a day of national thanksgiving, in hopes to unite factious states.
In 1817, the state of New York adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual holiday. By the mid-1800s, other states likewise adopted the practice. In 1863, President Lincoln appointed it as a national holiday, and gave a Thanksgiving proclamation. Each president since then has issued a proclamation, announcing the celebration of this day.