On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans observe Thanksgiving. The earliest of these holidays, celebrated by settlers in the New World, were not much different from traditional harvest festivals they had grown up with in Europe. But having arrived in North America just as winter was setting in, the colonists, or Pilgrims, were unprepared for the harsh conditions. Nearly half of their number had been wiped out in that first year. The bounty they feasted on during that first Thanksgiving celebration held special meaning because of hardships they had had to endure.
The Thanksgiving holiday most Americans observe today is fashioned on the partly fabulized celebration that took place in today’s state of Massachusetts, sometime between September 21 and November 11, 1621. As the story goes, 53 English men, women and children were joined by some 90 Native American tribesmen in a feast to give thanks for the first harvest in their new home.
And they had much to be thankful for. Just one year earlier, in mid-November 1620, they were part of a group of 102 colonists and 30 crew who reached the shores of North America aboard a ship named Mayflower. These were Puritans, religious separatists looking for a new home to practice their faith as they saw fit.
By that first Thanksgiving celebration, half of their number had died due to starvation, disease and the harsh weather conditions. Luckily for the colonists, their native Wampanoag neighbors took pity on them. They kept the colony going with donations of food and taught the Puritans how to harness nature’s bounty for their own uses. That first festival was truly an expression of gratitude on part of the colonists, for having survived.
“Just as 400 years ago when the Pilgrims were able to celebrate a successful first harvest thanks to the generosity and support of the Wampanoag, today we too express our gratitude for those who have helped us get through this difficult past year,” said President Joe Biden.
“Thanksgiving provides us with a time to reflect on our many blessings — from God, this Nation, and each other. We are grateful for these blessings, even — and especially — during times of challenge.”