Thanksgiving festivals have been traditions of many cultures throughout history. They often started as harvest festivals, as many ancient farmers had beliefs that spirits caused the crops to grow, and to later die. These spirits were thought to be released during the harvest, with the possibility they may attack the people doing the harvesting. Some of the harvest festivals celebrated the defeat of these spirits.

The Greeks, for example, had a three-day autumn festival known as Thesmosphoria, where they honored Demeter, goddess of grain. Married women would create shelters made of leaves, and use plants to make couches, which they would place inside the shelter. They would proceed to fast for the next day, and then hold a big feast on the third. Offerings were also made to Demeter, to encourage her to give them a good harvest.

The Romans celebrated Cerelia, to the goddess Ceres, their goddess of grain. The first food harvested would be given as an offering, and then a great feast would take place. This holiday was celebrated on October 4th.

Chung Ch'ui is the Chinese festival for giving thanks, a three-day festival, like the Greek version. The day was celebrated with a feast of roast pig, freshly harvested fruit, and moon cakes - cakes round and yellow, stamped with the face of a rabbit. This is because one of the features of the day is that it is the birthday of the moon.

However, there's more to those cakes, according to legend. During one point when China had been invaded, and Chinese people were without food and homes. They decided to attack the invaders, and used the moon cakes to coordinate the attack. A large number of cakes were made, with the exact time of the attack contained inside the cake. The attack was successful, driving out the invaders.

The Egyptians celebrated in the springtime, their harvest season, to honor Min. There would be great parades, often with the participation of the Pharoah. Huge feasts, sport, music, and dancing were all involved.

History of the American Thanksgiving:

In 1620, the members of the English Separatist Church, a Puritan sect crossed over the Atlantic Ocean in the Mayflower, journeying to the New World. They had fled from England to Holland to escape religious persecution, but felt the Dutch way of life was ungodly. They had to negotiate with a London company to finance the trip, and to protect their financian interests, a large number of passengers were hired for the trip.

They arrived in Massachusetts, the area native to the Wampanoag Indians, on December 11, 1620. Plymouth was built right where an old Native American village of Patuxet was located. They had brought some supplies, but not a lot, and the first winter they dealt with was very harsh, and nearly half of the original 106 people abord the ship had been lost. When the next spring came around, they found that the wheat they had brought for planting would not grow in the soil, and things didn't look good.

Fortunately, a man by the name of Tisquantum (also known as Squanto) was among the Wampanoag tribe. He was originally from Patuxet, but had gone to England with John Weymouth, an explorer, and had learned to speak English. Upon his return after a number of other things happened, he found his old village empty, after all had died of infections brought by the English. He had been living in the nearby Wampanoag village. His ability to communicate with the Pilgrims, and the Wampanoag custom of helping visitors, they started to teach the Pilgrims how to survive in the New World.

The next few months, Squanto stayed in the village, educating the Pilgrims. He helped by bringing food and supplies, such as venison, and beaver pelts. He helped them learn to cultivate various new plants, such as corn. He pointed out poisonous and medicinal foliage, and gave them countless other skills. They also graduated from the simple small structures they had been living in, to native designs.

With Squanto's help, they not only survived, but started to thrive. There would be enough food to last them through the winter from the great crop yields. They had started to build more traditional european buildings - they had created a log Church.

To celebrate their good fortune, Governor William Bradford decided to hold a feast of thanksgiving. It had been a religious observation in England for them, so they were used to having one. The Pilgrim Captain, Miles Standish, invited a few of the Native Americans to the feast to show their gratitude, as they wouldn't have survived without them. Squanto, Samoset, and the leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit were invited, along with their immediate families. The Wampanoag tribe also had feasts of thanksgiving - six throughout the year, so it was not new to them. The feast of thanks would last three days.

The Pilgrims were not prepared for the size of their families, as the Native American families were quite large - about 90 came in total. Massasoit, aware that there would not be enough food, ordered some people to go back to their village, for more food. In fact, they ended up supplying the majority of the feast, with such items as deer, wild fowl, fish, beans, berries, squash, corn soup, and corn bread.

Everyone sat at long tables for the feast - this was a new experience for the Native Americans, as they ate sitting on furs or mats sitting on the ground. The Puritans were also exposed to something new - Puritan women stood behind the table, allowing the men to eat first. But the Native American women sat at The table right along with the men. Both groups established a close friendship.

Two years later, in 1623, crops were suffering from a severe drought. The Pilgrims gathered in their church, praying for rain, so they may have enough food at the harvest for winter. The next day greeted them with a nice, steady rain. So Governor Bradford again declared a day of thanks, again inviting some members of the Wampanoag tribe.

However, as the years passed and more settlers came in from England who were unaware of the help of the Native Americans, the friendship disappeared. Many of the newcomers were full of mistrust, and they started showing intolerance toward the Native Americans over their customs, and especially, their religion. By the time the children at the thanksgiving feast were adults, the Pilgrims and Native Americans killing each other.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council in Charlestown, Massachusetts voted on how to celebrate the secure establishment of their community, especially with all the "heathen" Native Americans around. They voted, and The First Thanksgiving Proclamation selected June 29 as their day of feasting.

On October 13, 1777, to celebrate thanks for both the recent victory at Saratoga for the American Revolution, and for more traditional reasons to give thanks, all 13 colonies celebrated a day of thanks.

George Washington himself declared a national day of thanksgiving, though there was not a lot of support for the idea of thanksgiving as a national holiday. In fact, Thomas Jefferson himself disagreed with the idea.

In 1817, the state of New York adopted a Thanksgiving Day holiday. And by the middle of the century, many other states had done the same. Finally, in 1863, after years of the cause being championed by Sarah Josepha Hale, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of Noevmber a national day of Thanksgiving. For a while, each successive president would make the same declaration, though a few presidents did choose a different date. Franklin Roosevelt set it as the next-to-last Thursday, to try and create a longe shopping season for Christmas. People were very unhappy with the change, and it was returned to the last Thursday.

In 1941, Congress decided to sanction the holiday. No longer did each president have to declare it. It was fixed as the fourth Thursday in November.

Sources:
Thanksgiving Information, http://www.2020tech.com/thanks/temp.html
Thanksgiving on the Net, http://www.holidays.net/thanksgiving/story.htm
The Thanksgiving Story, http://wilstar.com/holidays/thankstr.htm

Jeeze you people are depressing.

Every Thanksgiving my family would gather together in the little rowhome that was my place of residence for 10 years. My family was very large. I'm talking 70 some people folks in this little three story rowhome. We couldn't even all fit at the dining room table, some of us (mostly the kids) sat in the living room and ate.

But we enjoyed ourselves anyway. There was always plenty (I mean PLENTY) to eat and there was an endless amount of things to talk and gossip about. And then us kids would goof off upstairs, running around (don't ask how we ran around that third floor, it was pretty fricken small), playing video games, and just generally acting our ages (and sometimes getting in trouble for it.)

Yeah, the Puritans were uber-fundies and genocide later resulted from the Europeans comming over. But that's not enough reason to blow a holiday to bits folks. For once, try to enjoy something about this crazy mess of our country of ours. You may actually like it (gasp!)

Thanksgiving
by Edgar A. Guest
from Just Folks, 1917


Gettin' together to smile an' rejoice,
An' eatin' an' laughin' with folks of your choice;
An' kissin' the girls an' declarin' that they
Are growin' more beautiful day after day;
Chattin' an' braggin' a bit with the men,
Buildin' the old family circle again;
Livin' the wholesome an' old-fashioned cheer,
Just for awhile at the end of the year.

Greetings fly fast as we crowd through the door
And under the old roof we gather once more
Just as we did when the youngsters were small;
Mother's a little bit grayer, that's all.
Father's a little bit older, but still
Ready to romp an' to laugh with a will.
Here we are back at the table again
Tellin' our stories as women an' men.

Bowed are our heads for a moment in prayer;
Oh, but we're grateful an' glad to be there.
Home from the east land an' home from the west,
Home with the folks that are dearest an' best.
Out of the sham of the cities afar
We've come for a time to be just what we are.
Here we can talk of ourselves an' be frank,
Forgettin' position an' station an' rank.

Give me the end of the year an' its fun
When most of the plannin' an' toilin' is done;
Bring all the wanderers home to the nest,
Let me sit down with the ones I love best,
Hear the old voices still ringin' with song,
See the old faces unblemished by wrong,
See the old table with all of its chairs
An' I'll put soul in my Thanksgivin' prayers.

This poem is an example of a couplet.

Thanksgiving is the second, unofficial, national holiday of the United States of America - where Independence Day celebrates the founding of the American state, Thanksgiving celebrates the founding of the American nation. Based on a celebratory feast held jointly by English Puritan "Pilgrim" immigrants and native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts sometime in late September or early November of 1621, Thanksgiving is now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Americans commonly commemorate this feast by joining together in extended family groups (which in the modern age often requires some travel) and eating a rich meal together. The centerpiece of this meal is traditionally turkey, which was present in abundance at the 1621 feast; ham, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and yams would be anachronistic at the original gathering but are common in modern celebrations.

Harvest and autumn thanksgiving celebrations are common across time and cultures, so why does America celebrate this particular one? Well, aside from the fact that the 1621 feast was one of the first major events in America for the European settlers from whom, for better or worse, modern American society is descended, the story also represents several of the ideals by which America seeks to define itself. The Pilgrims, less than a year in the new world to which they fled from religious persecution, remind America of its immigrant heritage and its promise of a better, freer life, which has continued to attract immigrants throughout its history. Likewise, the Wampanoag, without whose assistance the settlers might well have not survived the year, call to mind the American tradition of charity and mutual aid. That the two groups could come together in unity to celebrate represents a cultural tolerance, inclusiveness, and even friendliness which, if imperfectly realized through American history, has generally remained a national ideal. Even the very nature of the celebration - religious, for it was, as the name suggests, a giving of thanks to the higher powers for the harvest and the blessings of the previous year, but at the same time inclusive and nondenominational, the Pilgrims a splinter group of the Church of England and the Wampanoag of an animist tradition - is reflective of a society that marries a strong sense of religion to a tradition of religious freedom, diversity, and harmony rather remarkable in the grand sweep of history.

Of course, this is not to say that as the national holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving has remained static through the ages, for the nation itself has certainly not. Thanksgiving has always incorporated the American themes of bounty and plenty, the promise of which has drawn immigrants from the Pilgrims to the modern day, but with the technological, economic, and societal advances of the 20th century, these themes have evolved into an aggressive consumerism. As this consumerism became a larger and stronger element of the American national identity, a trend augmented by the nation's strong identification with capitalism in contrast to the communism of its "enemies" in the Cold War, Thanksgiving naturally began to accommodate and reflect it. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, held on the morning of the holiday, is watched on television by millions, who see what is in large part a procession of children's entertainment and advertising displays presented by major corporations in what is, after all, an elaborate promotion for that ultimate symbol of early consumer culture, the department store. A major feature of the parade is the Santa Claus float, which calls to mind the fact that the day after Thanksgiving, which while not a actual holiday is frequently given to workers as a day of vacation, is Black Friday, the "official" opening of the Christmas shopping season, a day wholly dedicated to consumption. Likewise, entertainment and leisure, both fundamental to a consumer culture, are represented in the many American football games televised in the afternoon and watched in comfort by (mostly male) Americans, stuffed with food and frequently drinking beer, drowsy and content.

Independence Day remains the official national holiday, while Thanksgiving was not officially set as a holiday at the national level until 1941. I personally believe that Thanksgiving should be formally elevated to share the spotlight with Independence Day. This would necessitate no changes to the holiday's treatment or celebration, and government meddling in this matter would in fact run counter to the spirit of Thanksgiving as the people's holiday, and while the latter's themes of freedom and liberty are important, there is no reason why they could not stand side-to-side with the more humanized themes of the former. In recognizing and formally identifying itself with these themes, I believe America would be projecting a positive image of itself that would resonate even with many of those at home and abroad who dislike the government and military with which Independence Day, as a "state" holiday, is strongly identified. Thanksgiving represents the true spirit of the American people, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.

The great mathematician and comedian Tom Lehrer wrote the following song about Thanksgiving (to the tune "We Gather Together"). As usual, he makes fun of something a lot of people can identify with. For another example, see A Christmas Carol.

We gather together to ask the lord's blessing
For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.
It was slightly distressing but now we're convalescing
So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.

Our nearest and dearest we don't want confessing
It's sort of depressing to have them so near.
Our feelings supressing for lightly acquiescing
And perfectly professing we're glad they were here.

We gathered together and got the lord's blessing
Of course we're just guessing 'cause how can you tell?
Our stomach's are bloating, our kidneys nearly floating
Hellos are very nice but goodbyes can be swell.

Lyrics reproduced with Tom Lehrer's written permission. See this node.

I awoke this morning in a familiar state
My bones were aching and I didn't feel great.
I was a bit dizzy and well rested? not quite.
I searched for my glasses to help with my sight

Finding my will and resolve, I finally arose
to stings in my ankles and pains in my toes
I heard once that standing is half of the battle
"Someone younger than I, with such happy prattle."
But arise I did, simply because I could
Finding a bit later I felt kind of good.

Thank thee, oh Lord, for the ability to stand.

Feeling a twinge of incipient hunger,
I put on my clothes and downstairs I did wander
A glassful of water and a palmful of pills
cholesterol and sugar and blood pressure, my ills.
"With all this roughage, I don't need any fibre."
"I just hope all this crap doesn't trash my liver."

Looking in the fridge my hunger to appease
a bounty I saw, more than enough to please
Meat and yogurt, eggs and milk
Bagels and cream cheese and all such ilk.
My wife was already there, a most welcome sight,
a smile and a greeting to set the day right.

Thank thee, oh Lord, for your provision

Our repast finished, it's off to my work,
breathing a prayer to take on no hurt
to myself or another as I fulfill my task.
"Another day of safety, Lord, that's all that I ask."

The hours fly by and the day is done.
I'd hoped to be finished, have some time for some fun.
The work isn't done and I start on the night,
my bones are weary and blurred is my sight
Still, somehow, I do what I must,
with all of my will, and my strength, and my trust

Thank thee, oh Lord, for the privilege of work

I return to my home, my people, my place
and see in the mirror the lines on my face
and think of the years and the things that have passed
things that, in my foolishness, I once thought would last.

I think of the people I've known who have gone
and the days I've been granted, the count growing long
and how on this day I have time to reflect
on the blessings I've been given, and memories collect.
A chance to express gratitude for the bounty I'm living,
and breath a quiet prayer, a sincere thanks giving.

Thank thee, oh Lord, for this Thanksgiving

I believe that celebrating the American version of Thanksgiving is akin to celebrating Kristallnacht, if not worse: it is a very racist holiday, a celebration of the systematic genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by Europeans and their descendants. This is a genocide - yes, a genocide - which continues in some remote corners of the continent to this day (for example, the Brazilian rainforest) in a very literal sense and in almost every other corner of the hemisphere in a metaphorical one.

The fact that this holiday is still nearly universally celebrated in a nation where there are over 2 million Indians says a lot about how far race relations have come. While there is often talk about relations between whites and blacks, there is little recognition that the indigenous peoples of this country are not extinct and are unlikely to become extinct anytime soon.

Where, also is the discussion of their rights? The United States Government pledged billions of dollars to various indigenous peoples in treaties as compensation for the appropriation of their ancestral lands, but most haven't seen a penny of it. It was put into trust for them rather than given directly, and over time has been mismanaged and lost by the bureaucrats in Washington charged with guarding the fortune.

I have occasionally encountered people who agree with my view of Thanksgiving, but celebrate it anyhow because it is a time for them to be with their families. Well, shame on them. They should be spending time with their families with our without the excuse of a racist holiday. Perhaps it is the only time of year your family gets together as a whole... well, for most of my peers, this part of our lives, moreso than any other part, is a time of transition.

Transition from our old families: our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins - to our new families: our siblings, our spouses, and potentially our children. It is time for us to begin forming our own traditions, and this is the perfect opportunity to stop celebrating something that is so unworthy of celebration.

If you don't agree with my views of the holiday, I see two reasons. Either you have read extensively on the topic and have formed your own (different) opinion, or you have not read much at all and have formed your opinion based on very little information (and potentially don't care to find out more). Either way, I hope you will agree with me that more knowledge is always a good thing, so I encourage you to read up on the topic. Why not enter some terms related to the colonial history of this continent into a search engine and see what you can find?

I leave you with a quote. In a Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623, Thomas Mather, an elder, gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague that wiped out most of the native Wampanoag. Mather added in his sermon that he praised God for destroying chiefly the young men and the children, whom he described as the "very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth."

I originally wrote this on Thanksgiving of 2007.

Thanks"giv`ing (?), n.

1.

The act of rending thanks, or expressing gratitude for favors or mercies.

Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. 1 Tim. iv. 4.

In the thanksgiving before meat. Shak.

And taught by thee the Church prolongs Her hymns of high thanksgiving still. Keble.

2.

A public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness; also, a day set apart for religious services, specially to acknowledge the goodness of God, either in any remarkable deliverance from calamities or danger, or in the ordinary dispensation of his bounties.

⇒ In the United States it is now customary for the President by proclamation to appoint annually a day (usually the last Thursday in November) of thanksgiving and praise to God for the mercies of the past year. This is an extension of the custom long prevailing in several States in which an annual Thanksgiving day has been appointed by proclamation of the governor.

 

© Webster 1913.

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