On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. The celebration is rooted in the ancient tradition of the harvest festival, but in the United States, it has taken a far greater significance. Although there are numerous regional claims as to where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, the traditional observance stems from a celebration that took place in Massachusetts, in November, 1621.
Those English settlers who celebrated that first Thanksgiving truly did have much for which to be thankful. Known today as the Pilgrims, these Christians were dissenters from the established English church. As part of their religious beliefs they observed Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving in response to events they believed to be special acts of Providence. The end of a drought, or of a plague, might call for a day of Thanksgiving.
Intent on setting up a community wherein they could live according to their own religious beliefs, they sailed out of England on a ship called the Mayflower in September 1620. One hundred and two would-be colonists and some 30 crew came ashore at Cape Cod on November 9th. Within a year, half of them were dead due to starvation, disease and the harsh weather conditions of that first winter. But the summer brought a good harvest, and in autumn, 53 Pilgrims sat down to a feast with 90 of their neighbors, Wampanoag Indians who had helped feed and safeguard them over their first year in the New World.
Although the holiday had been observed in Virginia since the first permanent colony was founded in Jamestown in 1609, modern Thanksgiving was first officially established in all states in 1863, by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. The observance was moved to the fourth week in November by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Thanksgiving began as a prayer of gratitude by emigrants who faced death, who nevertheless came through and endured. Today, for many Americans it is an occasion for gatherings of family and friends; a day to share a holiday meal with those who matter the most; and a day to give thanks for the many blessings of freedom.