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An American Celebration of Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving Day is one of the United States' uniquely American holidays. On the fourth Thursday of November, families and friends gather to thank God for His blessings and to celebrate God's goodness to them. They often attend religious services and almost always have a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey is the most common dish to have at this meal, but there are other traditional foods as well – bread dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

The holiday has its roots in one of the earliest settlements in America – the Plymouth Plantation. Today, "plantation" is a kind of large farm, but then, in 1620, it was another word for "colony". In that year, a group of 102 English settlers arrived in the New World near what is now Boston, Massachusetts. They had left families, friends, country, and comforts behind in order to have freedom of religion in America. In England they had been persecuted, because they wanted to study the Bible and worship God in their own way instead of belonging to the Church of England. They called themselves "Pilgrims" and they were willing to face danger and hardship in order to have religious freedom for themselves and their children. They sailed from England to America in September, 1620, in a small ship called the Mayflower. That late in the year, the Atlantic Ocean was very stormy and they needed to spend almost the entire two months below decks. A lot of people were seasick and each person had about the same amount of space as a modern single bed. The storms blew them off course and they ended up far north of Virginia where they were supposed to land, but when land was finally sighted, they all came up on deck and sang songs and prayed prayers to thank God for bringing them safely to the New World.

The Pilgrims had many difficulties in their new land. There were many hostile Indian tribes in the area where they landed. There were no maps or guides to tell them where to locate their new colony and it took them a month to find a good place to build. In December, they found a cleared area left behind by the Patuxet Indians, who had all died a few years earlier in a plague. They named it Plymouth. They built a common building as a first dwelling and began to build some smaller houses, but their work was stopped by an epidemic. Influenza and scurvy made most of them sick after being on the ship for so long. All through January and February the Pilgrims became ill. By the time spring came, half of them were dead, buried secretly during the night so the Indians wouldn't know how few of them were left.

But then something amazing happened! One day a lone Indian walked into their village and said, "Welcome, Englishmen!" The Pilgrims were shocked to hear English from a Native American. The Indian's name was Samoset and he was an Algonquin chief from a northern tribe. He had learned a little bit of English from fishermen along the coast, but he knew of another Indian brave from another tribe who knew English much better than he did. Within a few days, he returned to Plymouth with five other braves. One of them was named Tisquantum, or Sqaunto for short. He was a Patuxet and had been kidnapped by an English sea captain many years before. He had been taken to Malaga, Spain to be sold as a slave, but some Spanish monks had rescued him and had taken him live with them at their monastery. They taught him about their Christian faith and helped him find a way to get to England so he could find a way to go home to America. He spent five years with the monks and then another five years with an English family in London, where he learned to speak English well. When he finally returned to America in 1619, he found his village deserted because of the plague.

He was glad to find the Pilgrims living in his old home and came to live with them for the rest of his life. He taught them many things they needed to know to survive. From Squanto, they learned how to grow corn, beans, and pumpkins, how to find eels and shellfish in the mud by the river, and how to hunt beaver so they could sell the fur to buy supplies. The Pilgrims were very thankful for Squanto and called him "God's special provision".

At the end of that first summer, they had a good crop and Governor Bradford called for a special feast to thank God for His blessings to them. They invited their friends, the Wampanoag Indians to the feast. Chief Massasoit came with 90 of his braves. When the Pilgrims saw that, they were worried about how they could feed so many people without using up all of their food for the winter. But the Indians brought a lot of food with them to share and the feast lasted for three full days.

Thanksgiving became a common holiday in the northern colonies and gradually spread to the rest of the American colonies. In 1789, after the American Congress completed the new Constitution and Bill of Rights, President George Washington declared a day of public Thanksgiving. But the holiday did not become a regular national celebration until 1863. Abraham Lincoln was president and the United States was in the middle of the Civil War between the slave and free states. At the suggestion of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a famous women's magazine, he set aside the fourth Thursday of November as a yearly day for prayer and thanksgiving.

Not long before 1863, this was not something Abraham Lincoln would have done. He had not been a believer in God, but after he visited the graves of the 60,000 soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, he had a great change of heart. Here is what he told a pastor about it:

"When I left Springfield, [Illinois to become president], I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there [gave] my life to Christ."

Then he understood how important it was to express thankfulness to God, even in the middle of a terrible war. He wanted all the people of the United States to understand it, too, so he made a Thanksgiving Proclamation. Mrs. Hale had tried for many, many years to get a president to declare a formal, yearly celebration of Thanksgiving, but none of them were interested. Abraham Lincoln was God's special provision to make Thanksgiving a permanent holiday for Americans. As the Pilgrims would have said, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD." (Psalm 33:12) The Plymouth Plantation is still bearing fruit four hundred years later!


By Pamela Everly
November 2, 2012,
USA

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