On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans observe Thanksgiving. Although the holiday resembles traditional harvest celebrations common to agricultural societies dating back thousands of years, Thanksgiving honors the experience of the first Europeans to settle in what is today the northeastern United States.
They were Pilgrims, strict Calvinists who wanted a complete separation from the Anglican Church and consequently suffered persecution in England. And so, in September 1620, 102 would-be colonists, most of them Pilgrims, and 30 crew members set sail for the American continent on a ship named Mayflower.
The Pilgrims knew that as their venture was not supported by the English government, and with no appointed leadership, they must govern by consent of the colonists themselves. For that reason, before the Mayflower even landed, the passengers drafted the Mayflower Compact, a document promising cooperation among the settlers. The Compact stipulated that decisions would be made by voting -- the first experiment in democracy among Europeans in North America. It was signed by more than half of the adult male passengers, both Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims, and therefore was ratified by majority rule.
Only 53 of the original colonists lived to see the following spring. But the summer brought a good harvest. And in the autumn of 1621, the remaining members of Plymouth Colony, as they named their new home, sat down to celebrate their survival. They were joined by some 90 Wampanoag Native people who had helped to keep them alive by contributing food and teaching the colonists how to build homes to withstand the elements.
The celebration lasted for three days, during which the English colonists and Native tribespeople socialized peacefully. For their feast, the Pilgrims prepared native vegetables, ducks, and geese. And the Wampanoag contributed venison.
Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated today, is rooted in the 19th century. It became an official holiday during the U.S. Civil War, as a way to promote national unity. And the now-traditional turkey dinner became a Thanksgiving staple because the large bird could feed an entire family inexpensively.
Although the holiday has evolved over the centuries, Thanksgiving and its image of Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating together, have come to symbolize the intercultural peace, religious freedom, and prosperity that the United States continues to offer its citizens and newcomers from around the world.