Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:38 am
A guest post by Anne Clare
The United States’ celebration of Thanksgiving might seem, at first glance, like a surprising choice for a blog dedicated to Britain. After all, modern U.S. celebrations largely focus on eating turkey (a bird native to the New World), watching football (the American variety, naturally), and gearing up for Christmas shopping (well, alright, I suppose that’s international.) But as to the history of the day, even the youngest students at the school where I teach know the basics of the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth rock—Pilgrims whose roots and whose beliefs, which led to their Thanksgiving celebration, stretch all the way back to Britain.*
The traditional Thanksgiving story begins in the early 1600s, during the reign of James I (or James VI, depending on how it’s reckoned. See how much I’ve learned by reading Mr. Britain’s book?)
Before the Pilgrims became known by that name, they were a sect of British Christians known as the Separatists. Like their contemporaries, the Puritans, they disagreed with the Church of England in teaching and practice. Unlike the Puritans, who wished to “purify” the existing church, the Separatists wished to…well, separate themselves. To become their own, independent religious group.
In King James’s Britain, where he was both the head of the state and of the Church of England, a group claiming that church hierarchy was not only unnecessary but unscriptural was (unsurprisingly) unwelcome. The particular group of Separatists who are part of the Thanksgiving story were centered around Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, and they faced a dilemma. They wished to worship as they saw fit, but it was illegal, and they risked fines, harassment, or jail time by doing so. Therefore, they decided to leave the country—to travel to Holland which had much more relaxed religious rules. However, leaving the country without permission was illegal, too. (Religious dissenters. Can’t live with ‘em…can’t just let them leave the country.) It took three tries, but finally a sizeable group of the Separatists managed to emigrate. They settled in Amsterdam, then later in Leiden.
The story might have ended there—sans turkey and pumpkin pie and all of it—except that things weren’t as rosy in Holland as the Separatists had hoped. True, the rules governing religious choice were less strict. However, so was the local moral code. They seemed to be losing their identity—both as British and as Separatists—especially as their children assimilated into this new society. Not only that but, as outsiders, they found it difficult to find work. What they did find was menial and physically challenging. Often, children had to labor alongside their parents just to make enough to survive.
It was time to try something completely different.
Hoping for a Royal Charter enabling them to start their own colony in the New World, the Separatists approached King James. He refused, but he promised he wouldn’t block their efforts to resettle. In the end, they indentured themselves for seven years to the London Virginia Company in exchange for a Patent—i.e. financial backing for the trip. They planned to start a farming community in the Virginia Colony, near present-day New York City. Master Christopher Jones was commissioned to take the Separatists across the Atlantic in his ship, the Mayflower. A second, smaller ship was to go as well, but the Speedwell didn’t live up to her name and was so leaky that she had to be left behind.
When the Mayflower finally left Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620, she carried only 30 to 40 Separatists (none of the sources I’ve found agree on an exact number.) The remaining 62ish passengers were hired help or ‘strangers’ who wanted to find a new life in the Americas. The Separatists’—who we’ll call the Pilgrims from this point on, as befits a group travelling for religious reasons—voyage across the Atlantic lasted for 66 days. Poor weather and sea conditions prevented them from landing where they’d planned. Instead, they ended up to the north, near modern day Cape Cod, at a place they named Plymouth.
Controversy arose. Now that they’d failed to reach Virginia, was the patent from the company any good anymore? There was friction between the Pilgrims and the others and talk of the party splitting up—not a great idea for a small group in a new, unfamiliar, and potentially dangerous land. To settle the matter, Pilgrim leaders including William Brewster and William Bradford drew up The Mayflower Compact. It was the first political document created in the New World—a 200-word document establishing basic governing principles for the group.
Once all of that was settled, the Pilgrims (and the others, who are generally included under the blanket term ‘Pilgrims’ from about this point) could begin settling in to Plymouth Harbor. The Mayflower housed them as they built new homes ashore. Even with a home and basic government established, the Pilgrims’ struggles were far from over. Poor diet and difficult living conditions took a heavy toll. By the end of the first year, only 52 people survived—during their first two months on land as many as two to three people died every day.
Thankfully, even after the Mayflower’s remaining crew sailed back to England, the Pilgrims weren’t left completely alone. They’d made some valuable friends in the local American Indian tribes. The story goes that on March 16, 1621, an Abenaki sagamore (lesser chief) named Samoset strolled into Plymouth colony and greeted the Pilgrims—in English! He was friendly, and introduced them to the local Wampanoag chief, Massaoit, and a Squanto (also known as Tisquantum.) Squanto, born into the Pawtuxet tribe, was fluent in English—which made sense, as he spent quite a bit of time living around Englishmen. While his early history isn’t firmly established, some theorize that he had been taken back to England in 1605 by George Weymouth, then returned to America in 1614 with John Smith (whose story is tied in with the famous Algonquin chief’s daughter, Pocahontas.) Multiple sources seem certain that he was abducted by Thomas Hunt (one of Smith’s associates) and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. Upon his escape, he traveled to England, then back to the New World, only to find his people wiped out by disease. Squanto proved an invaluable contact and interpreter for the Pilgrims. Through his aid in negotiations, the Pilgrims signed a treaty with Massasoit, and through his help and knowledge they learned better ways to farm and survive in this New World.
Now, where does Thanksgiving fit into all of this?
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest. Pilgrim Edward Winslow detailed what happened next in a letter.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
This feast and the image of the Pilgrims giving thanks to God for their survival, gathered with their Native American friends around the table, has inspired and influenced the ongoing American Thanksgiving tradition. Pilgrim Governor William Bradford wrote his own account twenty years later, mentioning turkey as a dish served at the feast (hooray!)
However, the 1621 feast was not the beginning of an annual observance. True, Thanksgiving celebrations cropped up from time to time throughout North America’s history. Sources cite another feast of the Pilgrims in 1623, when it seems they had much more bounty to celebrate. The U.S. National Archives has a proclamation printed in Boston, calling for a day of thankful “fasting and prayer” in 1678. These observances continued into the turbulent 1700s. Even during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress of the United States calling for a day of Thanksgiving in 1777, with a rest from labor and recreation. (One could, I suppose, claim this as the first U.S. Thanksgiving celebration, since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, but as the colonies and Britain hadn’t yet sorted out their split, and wouldn’t until 1783 with the end of the war, I imagine that’s up for debate.)
In 1789, the first United States president, George Washington, called for a national Thanksgiving celebration, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God”—it was also to be a day to give thanks for the end of war, the establishment of a government, and to ask God’s blessings in the future. When the mood struck them, other presidents followed suit, but most years planning and implementing Thanksgiving celebrations was left up to individual states or territories. In fact, Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until more than 200 years after the 1621 celebration, in the midst of the dark days of the American Civil War.
In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (urged on by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book and author of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’) declared a National Day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November. This last Thursday became the traditional day for an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration, though it didn’t make it onto the calendar for a while—the President still had to declare it each year. Still, the precedent was set, and since Lincoln’s proclamation, the celebration of Thanksgiving has really only hit one major hiccup, during another war-torn era.
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to declare Thanksgiving a week early. As the week after Thanksgiving is generally when Americans start Christmas preparations, it seems that he was trying to give everyone an extra week to shop hoping to boost the economy. While the U.S. economy, still caught in the slump of the Depression, needed a boost, FDR’s decision was dubbed ‘Franksgiving’ and greeted less than enthusiastically. Some states went along with it, some refused to, and Texas and Colorado just celebrated twice. FDR stuck to his choice for two years, then in 1941 he relented, and Congress officially established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.
While Thanksgiving has changed significantly in the last 398 years, some things have remained. It is still a chance for reflection on the blessings of the past year. Many churches offer special opportunities for worship, though some (like mine) have moved services to Wednesday night rather than Thursday. I think it’s a good choice—it’s less distracting for the cooks who otherwise might be tempted to fret over whether the turkey’s drying out as it roasts and just how the pie and green bean casserole are both going to fit in the oven.
A traditional Thanksgiving Day generally includes a gathering of family and friends for an oversized afternoon meal. The meal consists of courses like turkey with bread stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Regional favorites like green bean casserole topped with crispy fried onion bits and sweet potatoes/yams (which, if made properly, are only a vehicle for marshmallow topping), are likely to be on the table. Of course, there’s always pumpkin pie (pecan too, if it’s a good spread), and plenty of whipped cream. Obviously, individual and regional customs vary, and over the years, innovators have tried introducing new fare. One of the most…interesting ones that I’ve heard of recently is a “turducken”—a chicken, stuffed in a duck, stuffed in a turkey. (No, I am not making this up, and don’t ask me how it works—I have no idea.) After dinner, there are football games to watch and Black Friday shopping ads to sift through. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—a tradition since 1924—will likely be on the television at some point with its giant balloons and lip-syncing pop stars.
In the end, though, I think the one thing we all hope for—the one thing that we know we need to hold on to, even if sometimes we forget—is the spirit of the day that we see in those Pilgrims who’d suffered and struggled and still rejoiced. It’s a day to stop, and reflect, to look at the blessings around us and to Give Thanks.
* Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that there is some dispute about the real ‘First Thanksgiving’ in the Americas. Claims have been made for American Indian, Spanish, French and different British groups being the true original givers-of-thanks. However, the account of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock is the traditional piece of history to which most Thanksgiving accounts refer, and the one I’ve chosen to focus on. Besides, none of the other tales of Thanksgiving allow for all of the fantastic toilet-paper-roll Pilgrim and turkey crafts that are staples of the American teacher’s Fall Art curriculum. Mystified Brits and others, please follow this link.
I want to thank Anne for unraveling the mysteries of Thanksgiving so wonderfully for us. I love the way things evolve – you might say from persecution to pumpkin pie – and it’s humbling to think that this celebration began, in unhappy circumstances, on this side of the Pond 400 years ago.
A replica of the Mayflower was built in Brixham, Devon and sailed from Plymouth to Plymouth Massachusetts in 1957. It has recently undergone an enormous restoration there in time for the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Pilgrims to the New World. Also in Plymouth, Massachusetts is Plimoth Plantation, a re-created Pilgrim village which, among other things, hosts costumed reenactments – including authentic 17th century Thanksgivings.
Anne Clare is a native of Minnesota’s cornfields and dairy country. She graduated with a BS in Education in 2005 and set out to teach in the gorgeous green Pacific Northwest, where she and her husband still live. She also serves as a church musician, singing and occasionally directing choirs, playing piano, organ, and coronet (the last only occasionally, when she forgets how bad she is at it.) After the birth of her second child, she became a stay-at-home mom, and after the birth of the third she became reconciled to the fact that her house would never be clean again, which allowed her to find time to pursue her passion for history and writing while the little people napped. Although she’s back to teaching part-time, she continues to blog about WWII history, writing, and other odds and ends at thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com. She published her first novel, ‘Whom Shall I Fear?’ in the summer of 2019.
All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.
All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.
All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.
However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt.
Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, ‘Whom Shall I Fear?’ follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.