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From a Feast to a Festival: The Tale of Thanksgiving.

Even if it is not celebrated around the entire world, everyone will have heard of Thanksgiving. It is a national holiday for the United States, and even though countries such as Canada, Liberia and some islands in the Caribbean have their own versions (albeit, on different dates and with less flare), it is a festival that Americans take proper pride and ownership of. The very first Thanksgiving happened nearly 400 years ago, but back then it did not have a name. That small group of grateful and friendly people had no idea what effect they would have on America’s history.

Plymouth Pilgrims.

We British can feel slightly smug since we have something to do with the birth of Thanksgiving, one of the most famous and elaborate national holidays in the world. Involved in the historic origin of the festival were passengers of the Mayflower ship which sailed from Plymouth, England in 1620. Different ethnicities boarded the Mayflower with the vision of creating a civilisation in the New World – today known as the United States – and so it was, a British ship brought the Pilgrims (as they came to be known) to America. It took 66 days to sail the 102 passengers to Cape Cod on the coast of the states, where they spent a month before crossing the Massachusetts to New York. Here they began establishing a village named Plymouth, but the majority initially lived on the docked Mayflower.

However, only half of the Pilgrims survived long enough to see their first New England spring. Winter on the boat was tough due to the amount of exposure, wrought with the spread of contagious disease and scurvy. When spring came, the Pilgrims knew they simply had to grow and harvest their own food in order to survive.

Indian Instructor.

The Pilgrims had drawn attention to themselves. The nearby natives were aware of their new neighbours and during the spring, one man was brave enough to approach, brave enough to greet them in English, and kind enough to want to aid their survival. He returned a few days later with a fellow native named Squanto, who had been kidnapped by an English captain, escaped slavery in London and had returned to his homeland alone. Even after what Squanto had suffered at the hands of foreigners, he agreed to show the Pilgrims survival skills, including cultivating corn, fishing and identifying poisonous plants. He even helped them gain an alliance with the local tribe, the Wampanoag tribe.

In November 1621, the Pilgrims harvested their first successful corn, and remembering where their knowledge of such farming had come from, Governor William Bradford organised a celebratory feast to which he invited a group of their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief. The guests came bearing five deer and Bradford had sent out “fowlers” of his own to gather game for the feast. The following festival lasted three days, in which the Pilgrims thanked the natives for their help, advice and alliance.

For almost two centuries, festivals like this were held by individual states and colonies, but it was not until 1789 that George Washington gave it a name by issuing the first Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1817, New York was one of the first states to officially adopt Thanksgiving as an annual holiday.

1863 – President Abraham Lincoln, in the height of the Civil War, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the final Thursday of each November.

Traditions.

  • Food – The 1621 feast obviously struck a chord with history since the lavish meal is still considered the highlight of the day. Turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie have become three of the main elements in Thanksgiving dinner. However, these foods are not traditional to the holiday, especially since the Pilgrims had no oven and a minimum amount of sugar left, meaning no pies or desserts of any kind were available.
  • Volunteering – This has become a typical response for Thanksgiving. Feeding rough sleepers in places such as soup kitchens is the main way some chose to spend their holiday. It makes sense, considering everyone is trying to show gratitude for what they have, and what better way to do this then to give back to the wider community?
  • Parades – Yes, parades are important to Thanksgiving. Singing, chanting, drumming and performing are a fundamental way to show celebration, so cities have sights of all kinds swarming their streets. The most famous parade is in New York with 2-3 million spectators lining the streets for the entire 2.5-mile route. Bands, extravagant floats baring celebrities, and enormous balloons in the shape of film/cartoon characters offer a thousand different sights for New Yorkers to enjoy.

We wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving…

What are you grateful for?

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