By Dr. Paul R. Warren†
Thanksgiving is a particularly American holiday. The word evokes images of football, family reunions, roasted turkey with stuffing, pumpkin & pecan pie, and, of course, the Pilgrims and Indians.
The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans brought new Thanksgiving traditions to the American scene. Today’s national Thanksgiving celebration is a blend of two traditions: the New England custom of rejoicing after a successful harvest, based on ancient English harvest festivals and the Puritan Thanksgiving, a solemn religious observance combining prayer and feasting.
Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia each declare itself the site of the First Thanksgiving and historical documents support the various claims. Spanish explorers and other English Colonists celebrated religious services of thanksgiving years before the Mayflower arrived. However, few people knew about these events until the 20th century. They were isolated celebrations, forgotten long before the establishment of our American holiday, and they played a small role in the development of Thanksgiving. But as James W. Baker states in his book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, the 3-day event at Plymouth Plantation in the fall of 1621 was “the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday.”
In a letter from “E.W” (Edward Winslow) to a friend in England, he says: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” Winslow continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand…that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”
In 1622, without his approval, Winslow’s letter was printed in a pamphlet that historians commonly call Mourt’s Relation. This published description of the First Thanksgiving was lost during the Colonial period. It was rediscovered in Philadelphia around 1820. Antiquarian Alexander Young included the entire text in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). Reverend Young saw a similarity between his contemporary American Thanksgiving and the 1621 Harvest Feast. In the footnotes that accompanied Winslow’s letter, Young writes, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebration Thanksgiving on their own.
Many people felt that this family holiday should be a national celebration, especially Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1827, she began a campaign to reinstate the holiday after the model of the first Presidents. She publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Sarah Josepha Hale’s efforts finally succeeded in 1863, when she was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November.
Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. But, by 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month.
If there is one day each year when food and family take center stage, it is Thanksgiving. It is a holiday about “going home” with all the emotional content those two words imply. The Sunday following Thanksgiving is always the busiest travel day of the year in the United States. Each day of the long Thanksgiving weekend, more than 10 million people take to the skies. Another 40 million Americans drive 100 miles or more to have Thanksgiving dinner. And the nation’s railways teem with travelers going home for the holiday. Despite modern-age turmoil – and perhaps, even more so, because of it – gathering together in grateful appreciation for a Thanksgiving celebration with friends and family is a deeply meaningful and comforting annual ritual to most Americans. The need to connect with loved ones and to express our gratitude is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time. And somewhere in the bustling activity of every November’s Thanksgiving is the abiding national memory of the moment in Plymouth, nearly 400 years ago, when two distinct cultures, on the brink of profound and irrevocable change, shared an autumn feast. Here is the documentation from the 1621 event in Plymouth which is the model for our Thanksgiving. I’ve included those references to this wonderful event and reprinted them below:
“And God be praised we had a good increase…Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p82
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.” William Bradford, Of Plymouth plantation: S.E. Morison, ed. Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p90
Therefore, as you eat, enjoy, laugh, remember and look forward to 2024, may you feast on these Words from Holy Scripture:
- “Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High:” Psalm 50:14
- “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
- “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
Dr. Paul Warren held doctorate degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Northern Theological Seminary and was passionate in his service to the Lord’s work. On October 21, 2023, Dr. Warren was promoted to glory and is survived by his wife, Julie, and daughters, Isabel and Aynabel, of Spring, TX. This article was first posted in Thanksgiving 2020 and updated in 2023.