An American Celebration – Thanksgiving Day

Sue Whiteman

Thanksgiving in America, began as a harvest festival and is now a public holiday traditionally celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

In September 1620 a ship called the Mayflower, set sail from Plymouth, England with the first English Puritans (known today as Pilgrims) on board and landed on American soil the following November. The Pilgrims settled and formed a colony late December in an area they named Plymouth, just south of where Boston is today forming the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England at Plymouth Harbour. Most of these Pilgrims referred to themselves as Separatists and they were either Methodists or Puritans seeking religious freedom in the New World. The Mayflower was a cargo ship not meant for passengers and with 102 people on board including crew members, it was small, making the journey dangerous and difficult.  Many of the passengers suffered greatly from distressing conditions caused by scurvy and lack of shelter.

The Pilgrims arrived at the beginning of a very harsh winter making times hard and rations tight.  When spring arrived, an American native called Squanto came to the rescue by helping them to plant and cultivate their own crops.  He also taught the Pilgrims to fish and hunt as well as showing them how to plant corn, pumpkins and squash.  These new found survival skills in a harsh New England environment enabled them to store up enough food making sure they would be well equipped to face the severe, bleak winter months ahead.  Squanto came from the Patuxet tribe, he was important to the Pilgrims during their first winter because he could speak fluent English and able to act as a guide and interpreter in the New World.

The Native Americans were invited by the grateful Pilgrims to join them for a huge harvest feast which has since become known as Thanksgiving.  It is now celebrated every year as part of the broader “holiday season” along with Christmas and New Year.  The tradition has continued for hundreds of years since and is celebrated with delicious food and lots of wine.  A typical Thanksgiving menu resembles a British Christmas dinner consisting of roast turkey, stuffing, cornbread, green bean casserole, roasted squash and winter vegetables. This is followed with a pumpkin pie topped off by a walnut (sometimes pecan) crust.

Each year, at least one turkey is “pardoned” by the President of the USA and granted a reprieve from execution.  This turkey then becomes the national Thanksgiving bird which for decades has been a long standing tradition.

In New York City, during the annual Thanksgiving Day parade, revellers can watch numerous floats and entertainers make their way through the bustling streets.  Since 1970, people have gathered and marched in Plymouth every year for a rally, where the first Pilgrims from England landed.  It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection in honour of the Native Americans ancestors, culture and surviving into days world.

The Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving does not have an official date in the United Kingdom, however, it is traditionally held on or near a Sunday of the harvest moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox.  Harvest Thanksgiving in Britain also has pre-Christian roots when the Saxons would offer the first sheaf of barley, oats or wheat to their fertility gods.  When the harvest was finally collected, communities would come together for a harvest supper.  When Christianity arrived in Britain many traditions remained and today Harvest Festival is marked by churches and schools in late September/early October with singing, praying, decorating baskets of food and fruit to celebrate a successful harvest and to give thanks.