Origins of Thanksgiving

Contributed imageNorman Rockwell’s 1943 “ fight for FREEDOM FROM WANT.”

Last week I wrote a bit about the some of the misconceptions about the first Thanksgiving meal that the Pilgrims enjoyed in 1621. Today, some history of the holiday.

For me, Thanksgiving is symbolized by the iconic image of Grandmother as she places the freshly roasted turkey on the table and the smiles on the faces of her family as they anxiously anticipate the delicious meal to come. This image was created by Norman Rockwell in 1942 and appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. It was titled “Ours…to fight for Freedom from Want.” The color lithograph was part of a series published by the magazine illustrating the “Four Freedoms.” The aim of the series was to promote the sale of war bonds during World War II.

Thanksgiving is primarily observed in Canada (second Monday in October) and the United States (fourth Thursday in November). Other places are Liberia (first Thursday of November), and Norfolk Island (last Wednesday of November) off the coast of Australia, and in one city in the Netherlands (fourth Thursday in November). According to the Australian Attorney General’s Department website, the holiday was brought to Norfolk Island by visiting American whaling ships. This makes sense to me since many whaling vessels sailed out of New England — the traditional birthplace of the holiday.

The Netherland’s origin is equally interesting. The Pilgrims arrived in Leiden, Netherland in 1609 to escape religious persecution in England. They were welcomed and helped rebuild the textile industry which had been devastated by the long Dutch revolt against Spain. They were allowed to worship as they wanted. Jeremy Bangs of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum says the Pilgrims “quickly adapted Dutch customs, like civil marriage and Thanksgiving.” To commemorate the time the Pilgrims spent in the Netherlands and the hospitality they received, a non-denominational Thanksgiving service is held each year on the morning of the American Thanksgiving Day in a Gothic church in Leiden.

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada — the same day we observe Columbus Day. As in the United States, there are a few “back” stories on the origin of the holiday in Canada. One connects it to the third voyage of explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 when he held a Communion service, in the bay which is named for him, to give thanks for a safe voyage across the Atlantic. Like Henry Hudson, he was looking for a northwest passage to the orient. Others trace the origin in Canada to explorer Samuel de Champlain.

In the United States we like to trace the roots of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony when in 1621 they sat down with the Wampanoag Native Americans to celebrate their first harvest in the new world. Some historians believe the tradition of giving thanks after a harvest may have been carried by the Pilgrims from Europe.

Other historians contest the claim that the first Thanksgiving was held in Massachusetts and contend that it was first held on September 8, 1565 by the Spanish in Saint Augustine, Florida. Others contend it happened in Virginia and that it was actually codified by the charter of Berkley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia in 1619.

The date for the celebration of Thanksgiving was decided by each state up until the time of the Civil War. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln at the urging of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, issued a proclamation in which he said in part: “ I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The full proclamation is much longer and was written by one of my New York State heroes, then Secretary of State William H. Seward. A year later the original manuscript of the proclamation was sold to benefit Union troops.

The date for Thanksgiving was changed one more time in 1941, when federal legislation established it as the fourth Thursday (not always the last) in November. I think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is just about family, friends, giving thanks and enjoying a great meal. The day is also a time to reminisce about past Thanksgivings when we enjoyed friends and relatives that are no longer with us. There are few pressures — with the exception of those possibly placed on those preparing the meal.

So, enjoy, and as is often said: don’t eat too much! Save some for leftovers.

To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”

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