Thanksgiving Day has a special meaning for Americans. Many holidays were brought along from Europe by the early settlers, and didn’t change very much. But Thanksgiving takes on a special shape in North America. That is because of the Thanksgiving celebrated by the early pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts in 1621.
These early settlers were from England and they were known as Puritans. This is because they wanted to purify the state religion of England. They felt that the churches were more concerned with politics and customs than God and worship. They were also called Pilgrims, because they were willing to travel to other countries in order to worship God the way they wanted to.
When the English government put some of the Pilgrims in jail, the rest left England and went to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, they could have their own churches. However, it was hard to earn a living there, and at first they didn’t know the language. In time, the English king learned where they were and tried to have them arrested. So they thought of another plan.
Pilgrim leaders like William Brewster attempted to raise money to start a colony in North America. They would have to borrow money and pay it back later. Thirty members of the Pilgrim church in the Netherlands voted to sail to America with their families. They returned to England and set sail on two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. When the Speedwell appeared unable to cross the ocean, both ships returned to England. All who still wanted to sail crowded into the Mayflower and set sail on September 6, 1620.
Many of the passengers became sick during the long voyage, and some died. They encountered fierce storms because they were sailing late in the season.
After sixty-six days, they sighted the sandy shoreline of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. There was disagreement between the Pilgrims and others on board ship about what to do. So first they had to agree to a common form of government and elect a governor. Since winter was coming, they decided to stay on the ship till spring.
About half of the remaining settlers died during that first winter. When the Mayflower sailed back to England, only about fifty settlers were left. Nearly half of these were children.
There were Indians in Massachusetts, but at first they were not friendly. They shot arrows at the settlers. But one day a friendly Indian named Samoset came to visit them. He spoke English and could tell them many things. He brought another Indian named Squanto, who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn. Eventually, their chief Massosoit came, and he promised to keep peaceful relations with the settlers.
All spring and summer of 1621, the Pilgrims worked hard in the fields. They also finished building houses and barns. In the fall, they were delighted to see that the corn and vegetables had grown well. They decided to have a thanksgiving feast and invited their Indian friends.
On the day of the feast, Chief Massosoit came with ninety Indians. There were turkeys, deer meat and fish to eat. The feast lasted three days. When the food ran low, the Indians went out to shoot more birds and animals.
The Pilgrims and Indians competed in races, wrestling, shooting and other games. The Pilgrims addressed prayers and thanks to God for providing food, shelter, freedom of religion and friendly Indians in this new land.
Ever since 1621, Thanksgiving celebrations include memories of that special occasion. Today, turkeys, cranberries, corn and squash are usually part of the Thanksgiving meal. In the United States, Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday. It is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.
In Canada, where the harvest is earlier, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October. The celebration always includes giving thanks for the good things that people have received, especially for food and families. Along with this goes the Thanksgiving meal, when so many good things are eaten.