We get a great four-day weekend at the end of November in which we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Besides needing a time to eat too much, watch parades, and watch football, why is it that we celebrate this holiday? The answer is not as straight forward as you might think.
The main reason that we celebrate Thanksgiving is out of a tradition of thankfulness that comes to us from the first English settlers of this country. Those first settlers endured almost unimaginable hardships. Two of the earliest groups suffered from devastating losses during the winters when they first arrived. However, after the winters passed, and the dead were buried, the survivors celebrated their lives. These celebrations are why we have the Thanksgiving holiday.
The first group of settlers arrived in the area of Virginia in 1607. They survived the first couple of winters without any real problems. Then the winter of 1609/1610 struck. There was such a famine that the settlers had to eat their own animals just to try to stay alive. Besides starvation, the settlers were also dying from disease. It was a terrible time for the early colonists, and about 400 of the 490 of them died. After that long winter of death was over, an English supply ship finally arrived with food. This supply ship was the cause of the first of three initial Thanksgiving celebrations.
The second-‘first’ thanksgiving celebration was a little different. This celebration took place on the shores of the James River at Berkeley Plantation. The settlers that arrived there in 1619 had agreed with the company that chartered the ship that they would celebrate their arrival in the New World with a day of Thanksgiving and Praise and that they would continue to honor that day. Although it is not well known, there is a celebration at that site every year on December 4.
The third-‘first’ Thanksgiving celebration is the one we remember today when we celebrate Thanksgiving. It was more like the first celebration, because the settlers had endured a hard winter and suffered a lot of death. These settlers, the Pilgrims, did not receive supplies by way of an English supply boat like the first group of settlers did. Their salvation came from learning how to farm the land and then having the right conditions to provide a good harvest.
After that first harvest, the settlers knew that they had the provisions to survive the coming winter in the New World. They were very thankful for the food that they had. They were also thankful to the local Indians, particularly Squanto, who had taught them how to farm corn and how to use ground-up fish as fertilizer. To celebrate the harvest, the Pilgrims hosted a large party that last for three days. They invited the local Indians to join them and nearly a hundred Indians showed up.
Looking back at the early Thanksgiving celebrations, there is a lot that we can learn from the settlers. They were groups of people that were able to concentrate on what they had rather than what they had lost: especially the first group who lost nearly 80% of their population. It would have been easy to focus on the death and to give up and go back to England. Instead, they focused on life. Rather than being resentful and angry with God for allowing most of their friends and family to die of starvation and disease, they thanked God for allowing those who survived to continue.
It was the amazing thankfulness of these strong people that began the tradition of Thanksgiving that we celebrate today.