Thanksgiving History

Featured Article, History, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 17, 2012

The holiday dedicated to feasting and being thankful for good fortune is a favorite tradition of Americans and a few other countries, too. Where and why Thanksgiving came about is an interesting story that is often obscured through a haze of tryptophan. Thanksgiving history is more storied and longer than you may think.

Etymology of giving thanks. The tradition of giving thanks with a feast is a common occurrence in many religions and in many places. England’s radical reformers, the Puritans, endorsed the Days of Thanksgiving and the Days of Fasting instead of the seemingly excessive numbers of religious holidays in the 1500s. These reformers sought to “purify” the church, according to the United Church of Christ, by seeking these radical reforms.

The Puritans wanted religious reform. During the reign of King James, the Puritans saw themselves not as the trailblazers of a new religion, but as members of the church who sought to refocus the church away from what they called papism and toward the sovereignty of God. The Puritans dissented from the commonly accepted church, and they broke from the Church of England to form groups now known as Quakers, Baptists and Congregationalists. Toward the end of King James’ reign, some of these reformers left England to practice religion in the manner they deemed correct. They founded the American colonies.

Puritans in America. After an arduous journey across the ocean, the English Puritans reached Plymouth, Mass. Their mission was to be free from persecution and to enjoy freedom of religion. The first year in the new colonies proved punishing to the 102 individuals who arrived on the Mayflower. Half of them perished due to lack of food, exposure to the elements and disease. The settlers made it to spring and were given an education by Squanto, an Indian slave. He showed them how to plant corn, how to farm in the Indian fashion, how to fish and even how to extract maple syrup from maple trees.

Thanksgiving was born. Due to this help, the settlers prospered that summer, and together with the Indians, they held their first thanksgiving feast in 1621, with Puritan-style piety, according to The holiday of Thanksgiving was not celebrated yearly, as we know it, until hundreds of years later when Lincoln proclaimed it to be a national holiday to be held in November.