BY C.L. HARMON, PUBLISHER
Did the Indians call themselves Redskins and toss around a pig skin with a group of pilgrims whose descendants would one day call themselves the New England Patriots……probably not. They probably did not stuff themselves and spend the day lounging around their rudimentary dwelling either. So how did we wind up with this holiday of turkey, football and a day off work. Actually it all began in a ceremony that took place on September 8, 1565, when 600 Spanish settlers, under the leadership of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed at what is now St. Augustine, Florida. They held a Mass of Thanksgiving for their safe delivery to the New World with a feast and celebration. This is considered the first Thanksgiving but certainly not the roots that today’s tradition grows from. What would plant the seed for our current day of thanks began on December 4, 1619, when 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred in the Virginia Colony on the bank of the James River upstream from Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in the new world, on May 14, 1607. The group’s charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving” to God. On that first day, Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. “We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God. Although the sentiment was planted in seed, Berkley Hundred is not where Thanksgiving would take root. Due to the Indian Massacre of 1622, nine of the settlers at Berkeley Hundred were killed, as well as about a third of the entire population of the Virginia Colony. The Berkeley Hundred site was abandoned as the survivors withdrew to Jamestown and other more secure points and the roots died out. However a year earlier in 1621, Pilgrims were laying down their own roots. They were giving the new world a go in what would become America’s second successful colony known at Plymouth, Massachusetts. As it turns out the Indians here were a little more hospitable to outsiders and with the help of a Patuxet Indian, residing with the Wampanoag tribe named Squanto, the Pilgrims learned how to catch eel and grow corn. Now there are not many (if any) Thanksgiving eels today on the table and just how thankful we would be for such a dish , I’m not sure, but it was a start. The Pilgrims set apart a day to celebrate after their first harvest. At the time, this was not regarded as a Thanksgiving observance since harvest festivals were existing parts of English and Wampanoag tradition alike. The Pilgrims actually did not hold a true Thanksgiving until 1623, when it followed a drought, prayers for rain, and a subsequent rain shower. Irregular Thanksgivings continued after favorable events and days of fasting after unfavorable ones. Annual Thanksgiving after the harvest did however begin developing in the mid-17th century although it did not occur on any set day or necessarily on the same day in different colonies. Tradition was finally in the making. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777. Then on October 3, 1789, President George Washington made a proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States. After several more proclamations by various presidents for the observance of Thanksgiving Day (none in the fall) President Lincoln finally proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. Then in 1941 the U.S. Congress in 1941 passed a bill requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes the next to last. As for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, only, two items that historians know for sure were on the menu are venison and wild fowl because they are mentioned in primary sources. Vegetable dishes didn’t really play a large part in the feast mentality of the seventeenth century, according to historians. Depending on the time of year, many vegetables weren’t available to the colonists. Some foods that were in abundance at the time and were probably used at that first holiday meal include: fish, lobsters, mussels, oysters, corn, parsnips, collards, turnips, spinach, onions, dried beans, dried blueberries, grapes and nuts. Turkey was available but not mentioned in any primary sources. The Thanksgiving Day game football tradition known as the “Thanksgiving Classic” began with Lions’ team owner G.A. Richards, as a gimmick to get people to go to Lions football games. As technology progressed TVs came into being, recliners became more comfortable and more teams got into the action, football became as common as turkey and giblet gravy. In the Plymouth tradition, a thanksgiving day was a church observance, rather than a feast day. And so watching a good football game during a fast might have been considered sacrilege by the Pilgrims. However historians state that the celebration did last for three days and consisted of intermittent feasting and some entertainment like games and the shooting of muskets. It is also interesting to note about this great American holiday, that the Massachusetts Bay Colony (consisting mainly of Puritan Christians) celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in 1630, and frequently thereafter until about 1680, when it became an annual festival in that colony. Connecticut also celebrated as early as 1639 and annually after 1647, except in 1675. The Dutch in New Netherland appointed a day for giving thanks in 1644 and occasionally thereafter.