We all know Thanksgiving as a time for family, friends, food and football. Most of us are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, when pilgrims and native Americans broke bread together and shared the bounty of the harvest. But not many are aware of the roots of the Thanksgiving tradition, nor how it became the national holiday we all enjoy today.
Almost every world culture sets aside days of thanks to celebrate the harvest. Harvest festivals are celebrated in Africa, Asia, India, the Middle East, South America, and many other countries. Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan all have Thanksgivings of their own. Thanksgiving was celebrated by Spanish colonists in America in the 1500s, and by settlers in Virginia throughout the 1600s, but the “First Thanksgiving” most of us are familiar with took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621.
The pilgrims who colonized Plymouth already observed days of thanksgiving and religious worship. It is likely that during the time they spent in Holland prior to their voyage to America, they also became familiar with the German “Oktober Feest” (not to be confused with the Oktoberfest beer festival), in which the harvest is celebrated with a large communal feast. They may have adapted this tradition to their own religious celebration, as a way of thanking God for a successful harvest after a difficult first year in a new land.
Arriving in the New World in November of 1620, the pilgrims endured a harsh winter, and nearly half of their number died. There was no time to plant or harvest food to eat, and their supplies were inadequate. They were saved from starvation by the generosity of Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, who shared his tribe’s food with them. Next year, to celebrate a successful harvest, the pilgrims thanked the Wampanoag by inviting them to their harvest feast. The first Thanksgiving was attended by 53 pilgrims and 90 natives, and lasted for three days. Of the celebration, pilgrim Edward Winslow observed, “Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are…far from want.”
The first national observation of Thanksgiving was in 1777, during the revolutionary war. It was proclaimed by General George Washington to celebrate victory over the British at the battle of Saratoga. “It is,” he wrote, “the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received.” President Washington also declared a national day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789, following the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Later presidents and governors of states occasionally announced official days of Thanksgiving, but it was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of every November to be an ongoing national holiday. “In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” President Lincoln stated:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt changed the day to the fourth Thursday of every month. 1939 had five Thursdays in November, and he sought to stimulate the economy by adding an extra week to the traditional Christmas shopping season. The very first official football game took place in November of 1869, and just two weeks later the first Thanksgiving Day football game took place in Philadelphia, PA. The tradition has continued, and NFL teams have played every Thanksgiving since the league’s formation in 1920.
However you choose to spend the holiday, we here at the Philadelphia International Music Festival want to wish you and yours a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!