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Thanksgiving Lore And History
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandmother's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
- Lydia Maria Child, 1844
As a child I remember singing that song every year around Thanksgiving time. The extended family would gather, usually at our house or Grandpa and Grandma's, for all those delicious traditional foods. The foods set on the table today are the same recipes that for generations the family has prepared, served and enjoyed each year at this time. Before partaking in the feast, thanks is given for the joy of family being together and for yet another gift of sharing with loved ones.
Where and when did Thanksgiving Day have it's origins? Let us go back, far back into history, and look at the beginnings, as far back as the time of the Essenes, in the Dead Sea area not far from Jericho. In the ancient Hebrew text there were scrolls containing hymns. This was a collection of songs expressing thanks for the acts of kindness God had performed. Professor Sukenik, the first of the scholars to handle these particular scrolls, named them The Thanksgiving Scroll since each hymn began with, "I thank thee, O God". Is this an indication that the ancient Essenes celebrated Thanksgiving as we do today? Not necessarily. They gave thanks every day of their life for the kindnesses bestowed upon them. They did not give thanks at a feast just once a year. It does, however, show us that the act of giving thanks began centuries before any of us were alive. People today, maybe without even realizing it, do just as the Essenes did, and give thanks each in their own way every day for even the smallest of kindnesses or gifts.
In early American history, Thanksgiving Day was a day set aside to openly acknowledge gratefulness for the blessing of a new home land, abundance and protection. The first New England traditions, in the 1600's, of giving thanks was the influence and origins of the Thanksgiving Day that we observe today in America.
The struggles the pilgrims faced in the beginning of their ventures to settle in an unknown land was met with determination and hope. The first harsh winter saw many deaths and little food for those who survived. They were not prepared for the different climate and soil conditions and the grains they brought with them were not adapted to the rocky and foreign soil.
There are differing stories as to how the pilgrims survived, but they all give credit to the Native Americans. One such story is how Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian, taught the pilgrims how to plant and fertilize the grains and seeds to get them to grow properly in the rugged land. Squanto even provided seeds to them and in the spring of 1692, corn, wheat and barley were planted by the pilgrims, following Squanto's instructions. Thus, with the first harvest of the pilgrims in their new home, they provided a feast of thanks to the Indians who helped them learn. This was considered the first Thanksgiving Day in America. The second Thanksgiving feast occurred the following year, after a much more abundant harvest and again the pilgrims gave thanks to their Native American friends.
It was not until 1777 that the first national Thanksgiving was celebrated and this was largely due to victory of the American Revolution. George Washington declared it a national holiday with a Presidential Proclamation in 1789. President John Adams did the same during his term, then Thomas Jefferson did not follow up with this. It was not until 1863 that the last Thursday of November was declared a national day of Thanksgiving by President Abraham Lincoln. So, Thanksgiving Day became the feast of harvest time as it was originally enacted by the pilgrims.
Thanksgiving Day involves different connotations for different cultural beliefs, some religious and some are simply for a good harvest, which symbolized the changing of seasons. In England they celebrate the end of the harvest season with an abundance of food with colorful wreaths of fruits decorating homes and churches. This is called Harvest Home or Ingathering. In Canada, their Thanksgiving Day is the second Monday in October and is for the purpose of giving thanks for the harvest season and some also thank God for the bounty. It is mainly considered a secular holiday.
India also celebrates the harvest with festivals in different regions. Although each festival is basically the same, they differ throughout the regions with their own traditions. Other Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Korea celebrate with harvest festivals. They are not all on the same dates.
Throughout history and all over the world many cultures give thanks for a bountiful harvest. They differ in their cultural traditions and style, yet the spirit of having one specific date to reflect and give thanks for life's blessings, remains the same. Each culture also has their own folklore for the harvest feasts, which is significant to their particular history.
Over the river, and through the wood -
Now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
- Lydia Maria Child, 1844
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