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A Short History of Thanksgiving

We celebrated Thanksgiving at HD today:  seven Greeks, one Romanian, one Brazilian, and one American.  Since I was the only one who knew what the holiday was all about, they asked me to prepare a short history of Thanksgiving to share with them.  As a US citizen living in Europe, I am acutely aware of how the United States is often perceived as boorish, backwards, and power-hungry.  I am simultaneously proud of and ashamed of my heritage, and I hope this summary of Thanksgiving accurately represents the best and worst of what the United States is capable.


In 1620, a ship called the Mayflower left England.  On it were 102 people, called Pilgrims, who were looking for a new land where they could have religious freedom and own their own property.  After 66 days at sea, they landed in North America and established a new home called Plymouth.

More than half of those 102 people died during their first winter.  But when spring arrived, a Native American named Squanto came to them speaking English.  He had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery.  He managed to escape London and return to his homeland in North America.  Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants.  He also helped them establish an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe nearby.

In November of 1621, the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was successful.  To celebrate, they invited their Wampanoag allies to join them in a three day feast.  Although this was the first Thanksgiving celebrated, the day did not become official until Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday 200 years later in 1863.  This was during the Civil War, and he hoped it would encourage all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

It’s important to know that, although this day began with the alliance between Pilgrims and Native Americans, we very quickly forced them off their land, massacred their people, and forced them to live in reservations on some of the worst land in our country.  In the United States, we are good at ignoring our crimes in favor of celebrating our own successes.  Hopefully our continued remembrance of Thanksgiving will remind us to be thankful for what we have while still fighting to ally ourselves with people who are different from us.

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2 thoughts on “A Short History of Thanksgiving”

  1. Did you know that the Pilgrims and Indians had peace between them for almost 50 years? Part of their pact was to defend each other against enemies of both, which included other Indian tribes.
    Squanto was captured and taken to Spain as a slave, but was able to escape and returned to England where he had friends he had made when he lived there previously, as an invited friend. They helped him to get back home. When he returned to his native land that time, he found out that his people had died so he was invited to live with another tribe. He met Samoset there, and through him, met the Pilgrims. He was invited by the Pilgrims to live with them when they found out they were living on land that his tribe had lived on previously. In documents written at that time, Squanto was called a gift from God because he taught them so much they needed to know to survive.
    The Pilgrims had a hard first winter because they left England so late in the season. One of their ships, the Speedwell, had so many leaks, they finally had to leave it behind. This is why they left late. The Pilgrims were only a part of the group. In order to make the trip financially viable there were other passengers, called strangers by the pilgrims. The Pilgrims so admired one of the strangers, Miles Standish, they made him their leader. The two groups together make up what we today call Pilgrims.
    This is probably TMI 😊, but history has so many layers. It isn’t black and white, one side is bad and the other good. There have been bad acts committed by all peoples, and unfortunately, this will continue to happen because we have s sinful nature.

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