Do you recall when you looked into a loved one’s eyes and felt the joy of sharing that time together? Celebrating Thanksgiving Day with family and friends is much like that moment — only on a much broader scale. 

In the midst of our daily mélange, we can find something or someone to be thankful for. Don’t let unhappiness stop you from sharing and being grateful; gratitude is not contingent upon happiness. It is possible to be happy and yet ungrateful. Thanksgiving is a yearly reminder to “count your blessings.” North Americans welcome Thanksgiving with a simple catchphrase: “Eat, drink, and be merry!” Be mindful however, that food and drink do not fall from the sky — they are the result of a successful harvest (your reward). Remember, someone, somewhere labored to put food on your table.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

In his 2009 book “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday,” author James W. Baker states, “Plymouth was the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday. It took place in the fall of 1621,” the third Thursday in November. “There were three days of celebration.”

Some historians have quibbled about the date and location of North America’s first Thanksgiving, with Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia all laying claim to it. In “The Truth about Thanksgiving,” author James Loewen says there are historical documents to support their claims. This is plausible, just as it is believable Africans were the first non-natives to come to settle in North America. Their own harvest practices closely aligned with those of natives.

“In the summer of 1526 five hundred Spaniards and one hundred black slaves founded a town near the mouth of the Pedee River in what is now South Carolina,” Loewen explains. “Disease and disputes with nearby Indians caused many deaths. Finally, in November the slaves rebelled, killed some of their masters, and escaped to the Indians. By now only 150 Spaniards survived, and they evacuated back to Haiti. The ex-slaves remained behind. “So the first non-native settlers ‘in the country we now know as the United States’ were Africans,” Loewen writes.

“Our elders told me that in the great long time ago, Black people came from Africa.” reported Dhyani Ywahoo in her 1987 book “Voices of Our Ancestors: Cherokee Teachings from the Wisdom Fire.”

WHEN THE PILGRIMS ARRIVED

To most Americans, Thanksgiving conjures images of pilgrims and turkeys. Most are unaware of native people’s material and spiritual contributions to the first Thanksgiving. Like pilgrims, the Wampanoag Indians gave thanks to their creator every day. To pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a day of prayer. The Puritans, who came a number of years later not to the Plymouth Colony but to Massachusetts Bay, considered it a holy day, or a holiday 

The pilgrims arrived in late 1620 with little food or winter clothing, The Wampanoag people extended brotherly love and taught them to plant and cultivate food; but there were greater threats to the survival of both groups of people. Native people and Africans were being killed, kidnapped and sold into slavery, tribal wars raged, small pox and colonial conflicts were looming. The Wampanoag and pilgrims allied themselves through a treaty months before they agreed to share the first Thanksgiving the following year. Ywahoo proudly adds, “Native people throughout the Americas were the first to cultivate over 130 foods eaten around the world.” These were seasonal foods, such as corn, (sacred to native people), squashes, and other vitamin-rich vegetables. These foods, along with flat bread and English desserts, were likely served.

Prominent pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England exclaiming, “And God be praised, our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together’…”

The letter was printed in a pamphlet historians call “Mourt’s Relation,” also called “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England,” which was written primarily by Winslow, with the first section written by William Bradford.

MORE ECHOES FROM THE PAST

From ancient times, the Wampanoag held ceremonies for planting and harvesting. For example, they held seasonal ceremonies celebrating the birth of children and the elements, to name a few.

David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, believes the 17th century pilgrim celebration of thankfulness for their harvest “quite clearly modeled” the biblical fall harvest during the Festival of the Tabernacles, determined by the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. People gave thanks for eight days.

Diane Ashton, author of “Hanukkah in America: A History” further explains, “Hanukkah is a holiday of thanksgiving.” A fascinating combination of the two holidays is Thanksgivukkah: two days when both holidays converged — once in 1880 and again in 2013. President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November Thanksgiving, thereby making it a national holiday in 1864. President Franklin Roosevelt later made it the fourth Thursday in November.

People shared more than a meal at the first Thanksgiving. They did not have the same religion or language, but they believed in one creator and they both desired peace. These noble ambitions are what drew together pilgrims and native people to rejoice at the first Thanksgiving feast in North America. 


Contact Alicia Dhanifu at amaisbest@hotmail.com.