The Pilgrims are most often credited with the first Thanksgiving and history teaches us there was a festival of thanksgiving shared with the Indians.
It was a magazine editor, however, whose 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents finally convinced the president of the United States to set aside a special day. Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of Boston Ladies' Magazine and later Hodey's Lady's Book. Her obsession with this cause became a reality in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. From that day forward, every president of the United States has proclaimed Thanksgiving be observed.
The date for this special day has been changed a couple of times, but the most recent change by President Franklin Roosevelt, caused such an uproar it was returned to its original date of the fourth Thursday in November. Roosevelt moved the date up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in November in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. After two-years and much public criticism, it was changed back and in 1941 was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday.
Thanksgiving has always been what the name implies -- a time to give thanks.
In 1609, a group of Pilgrims left their native England, fleeing to Holland where they could be free from religious prosecution. A few years later, the pilgrim's children begin to speak Dutch and were becoming attached to the Dutch way of life. Since the Pilgrims considered the Dutch frivolous and their way of life a threat to their children's education and religious beliefs, they left Holland and traveled to the New World. They traveled on a wooden ship called the Mayflower and arrived at Plymouth as 7-year indentured servants to the English investors who paid for the trip.
They arrived in Plymouth in December and the first winter was devastating to the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims worked to construct shelter as they fought against the extreme cold, snow and sleet and when March finally arrived, almost half of the Pilgrims were dead.
An English speaking Abnaki Indian named Samoset became a friend of the Pilgrims and brought another English speaking Indian, Squanto, to the Pilgrim's settlement. It is Squanto who historians credit with teaching the Pilgrims how to survive in the New World. He taught them how to tap the maple tree for sap, which plants were poisonous and which plants had medicinal powers, as well as how to grow corn and other plants.
Their first harvest was successful and Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans. The celebration continued for three days and included food and games of skill.
The next year the harvest was not as bountiful and the Pilgrims ran short of food.
According to historians, the third year brought a season that was dry and hot and the Pilgrims' crops began to die in the fields. Gov. Bradford called a council together and told them that God was withholding the rain for a reason and declared a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. Late in the afternoon, the sky was covered with clouds and the following morning it began to rain. The harvest that year was so abundant the Pilgrims had more than they needed and shared their food with Indians to the north.
As the country grew, history shows that President George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1789, to honor the formation of the United States government. Only Washington, Adams and Madison declared national days of thanks in their terms. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams considered the practice to infringe upon the separation of church and state.
An annual day of Thanksgiving did not occur until 1863 when President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day "of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father."
The history of Thanksgiving may be woven with fact, fiction and folklore, but one fact remains the same: The day was established as a day to give thanks to God. These principes of faith are what brought the first Pilgrims to a new land and guided the writers of the Constitution to protect the rights of the people living together in "one nation, under God."
This holiday season, let's all take the time to say "thanks" for the country we live in, the family we love, the blessings we have and of above all -- the freedom to worship God without religious persecution. I pray it will always be that way.