Last year I was honored to speak at Collin County Community College via an invitation from Ratio Christi. The topic was on the history and theology of Thanksgiving and was particularly directed toward the international students who were not familiar with this American tradition. The following is a section from that address.
The First Thanksgiving?
By the time of the fall harvest, there were 51 remaining settlers of the original 102, all of whom were relatively young. Bradford who served as Governor, was just 31. The wounds of the past month were still a present memory in their psyche, widows and orphans abounded, fourteen of the 18 wives had perished, yet in everything, they saw the hand of God. That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all is a testimony to their hope and resilience. But celebrate they did. Sometime in late September to early October, they gathered together after the harvest, with some kind of fowl, whether it was Turkey or not we cannot be certain, along with Fish, Mussels, Clams, and vegetables. More than likely the vegetables consisted of turnips, carrots, salted herbs, of course corn, and Greens.
Yes, the Wampanoag were there too, but we don’t really know how they came to be there. That they were invited is conjecture, but not implausible. Winslow’s own words of the ‘Indians coming amongst us” makes possible the notion that they just showed up. Which they often times did. One source states that the Indians heard shooting from the hunters and assumed the village was under attack. When they arrived and saw the feast, they sent men who immediately returned with Deer and wild Turkey. While the Pilgrims gave thanks in everything, there is no evidence that this was a special called Thanksgiving holiday or holy day. In fact, the events do not follow the traditional pattern of the Puritan day of Thanksgiving. In the only surviving description of a day of Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony, a pastor described the day as one of prayer, singing hymns, followed by more prayer, a sermon, and then making merry. Which probably referred to a meal.
The first known called for day of Thanksgiving came in July of 1623. The crop of 1622 had not been enough to feed them and as Bradford remembered, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months, “God fed them almost wholly from the sea.” Dismayed at their poor crop in 1622 and once again facing starvation due to a lack of rain, the leaders called for a Day of Humiliation and Fasting. As Winslow explained their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls.” On the morning after, the Pilgrims awoke to a clear sky, but by that afternoon it began to rain and rained for fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the, “sweet and gentle showers…which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”
Overwhelmed they immediately called for a holiday to give thanks. “We thought it would be a great ingratitude if we should content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained,” Winslow explained. Most likely this occasion took place in July of 1623, and more perfectly matches what the Pilgrims defined as a day of thanksgiving. From the perspective of the Pilgrims, this was the first Day of Thanksgiving. In an essay by Reverend J. H. Towne in 1850 on The First Thanksgiving Day Towne would blend elements from both the 1621 and the 1623 celebrations to create a narrative that would later influence annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations.