Library 101: Thanksgiving

Posted on: Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 by Janet Kirby

As we all start looking forward to Thanksgiving next week, eating too much turkey, watching the traditional football rivalries, and getting together with family and friends, have you ever considered “how did we get here”?

The story of Thanksgiving, as taught in elementary school with Pilgrims and Indians, turkey, corn and pumpkin pie, is really just one version of a celebration that originated on the American continent.  How the Pilgrims and their harvest celebration became so strongly associated with our modern version of the day is a matter of much speculation.

One of the first recorded Thanksgiving ceremonies on this side of the Atlantic was held in Canada by the British explorer, Martin Frobisher, on May 27, 1578.  It was a religious service with communion and a sermon blessing God for keeping the sailors safe on the perilous journey as they approached the stormy, icy coast.  This was after the third of his unsuccessful attempts to find the Northwest Passage to India. 

Another early Thanksgiving was recorded on August 9, 1607 in Maine.  Two ships sailing from England became separated during the nine weeks it took them to cross to America.   A sermon was delivered, again giving thanks to God for the safe trip.  An attempt to establish a colony, known as Sagadahoc Colony, lasted less than a year before the men returned to England. 

Virginia hosted two early Thanksgivings, the first in 1584, when a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s company, Captain Arthur Barlowe, spent four months exploring the coast.  The other occurred in 1610 when a ship arrived from England to resupply the Jamestown Colony in June.  Only 60 colonists remained from the 490 that populated the town the previous summer. 

Florida lays claim to the “real” first Thanksgiving.  The Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived near St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565.  A group of 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 civilian families and artisans, and the Timucuan Indians who occupied the village of Seloy gathered at a makeshift altar and said the first Christian Mass.  The first Thanksgiving feast was quite different from what we have come to expect.  The Timucuans brought oysters and giant clams. The Spaniards supplied garbanzo beans, olive oil, bread, pork and wine.

In 1777, the Continental Congress set December 18 as a national day of thanksgiving for citizens to “acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him [Almighty God] for benefits received…”  But it wasn’t routinely acknowledged.   It wasn’t until 1863, when Lincoln, responding to a personal plea to formalize the day, proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be observed by the nation.  In 1939, President Roosevelt “moved it one week earlier to allow more time for Christmas shopping.  Finally, Congress ruled that the fourth Thursday of November would be the legal federal holiday of Thanksgiving after 1941” (Holidays, 550)     

The tradition of the presidential pardoning of a turkey has some variations according to the White House Historical Association, but it is formally attributed to President Bush in 1989.   

It is perhaps of no great coincidence that November is Native American Heritage Month since Native Americans figure prominently in the Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving.  An official resolution was signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 to honor the heritage and contributions of America’s first residents.   There had been several attempts to create a holiday as early as 1915.  The Library of Congress has a webpage recognizing this month and the Native Americans who contributed so much to the history of this country.   

One of the display windows in the lobby of Kelly Library has a wonderful exhibit celebrating the heritage and history of the Native Americans.  Come in, look it over, and check out some books to learn more about them and Thanksgiving.     

Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days / Len Travers.  REF GT4803 .A2E63 2006

Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations / Matthew Dennis  REF GT3930 .E53 2006

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary / Helene Henderson.  REF GT3925 .H64 2005

Add Pingback