This is America's oldest celebration, predating the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War by some 150 years. Like so many of our celebrations, the meaning has become less clear over the intervening centuries. The purpose of this writing is to give some historical perspective to the celebration of Thanksgiving as well as the significance of some of the traditions that have been a part of this celebration since its inception in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. There is some debate among historians on this matter, many arguing that the first formal Thanksgiving was in 1619 some 20 miles upstream from Jamestown at a settlement known as Berkeley Hundred. For our purposes, it sufficient to acknowledge that Thanksgiving, whether first celebrated at Berkeley Hundred in 1619 or Plymouth in 1621, has been a part of our cultural heritage that predates our independence from England by more than 150 years.
History reveals that the early settlers of the Jamestown colony were faced with extraordinary hardships. Archeological work on the site shows an extraordinary period of draught that spanned the 6 years from 1606 to 1612. During that time, the early colonists were trying to survive in the driest period the geographic region had experienced in almost 800 years! The colonists were very nearly wiped out by starvation.
It occurred to me that this drought might have been precipitated by a significant volcanic eruption, which is one known cause of climate disruptions such as drought. However, my research revealed no eruptions near that date.
Whatever the reasons for it, suffice it to say, Jamestown's settlers suffered terribly as they tried to gain a foothold in the new world. In my opinion, it was this tremendous suffering which resulted in the Thanksgiving celebration. The early colonists were certain to have been exceedingly thankful that crops were flourishing and starvation was behind them. The first Thanksgiving feast was said to have lasted 3 days and was attended by 53 colonists and 90 or so Native Americans.
So this is what we celebrate today, the survival of the colonists against harsh conditions in an unfamiliar landscape. The tenacity of these brave souls is an integral part of our heritage and deserves to be celebrated. Without these stoic colonists, there would be no United States of America.
The first Thanksgiving we celebrated as a sovereign nation was by presidential decree, signed by George Washington, October 3rd, 1789. This was not designated as a recurring holiday under federal law, so successive presidents right through Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar decrees on an annual basis.
Finally, in 1941, both houses of the United States Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the date of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. The Senate amended the resolution in December of that same year to the fourth Thursday in November, cognizant of the fact that occasionally there are 5 Thursdays in the month. President Roosevelt signed this amended bill and for the first time in our nation's history the date of Thanksgiving was fixed by federal law.
These are the facts we should be mindful of as we continue the traditional observance of Thanksgiving Day here in the United States.