Editorial: Go back to Thanksgiving's origin

Almost 391 years ago a band of 53 pilgrims, who were refugees from religious persecution in Europe, sat down to eat a Thanksgiving meal on the third Thursday in November in Plymouth, Mass. They were the survivors of the Mayflower, a ship carrying some 100 religious separatists who had disembarked Sept. 16, 1620, from Southampton, England, seeking freedom in the new world.

They had endured extreme hardship in crossing the Atlantic, and landed at what is now Provincetown, Mass. — far from their intended destination in Virginia, where they were to join other First Comers, as the pilgrims were originally known. Then their numbers were drastically reduced by the difficulty of the first winter in a harsh climate with few resources.

But by the next year, with some help from friendly Native Americans who taught them how to grow corn and eat from the land — and who agreed to work together for the common good — they were thriving.

Documents from the time describe a great in-gathering of food and rejoicing in the success of the perilous venture, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum website. The original feast went on for three days and involved nearly 150 people and the consumption of every kind of food source available.

In Edward Winslow's "Mourt's Relation," an account of the time, Winslow writes in the original English: "Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others.

"And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."

Thanksgiving was originally a religious tradition, according to Pilgrim Hall, but it has become distinctly American and secular. In 1863, President Lincoln declared it an annual tradition, paving the way for a general holiday on the third Thursday of November. In the 1940s, it was changed to the fourth Thursday in November.

For many, it is their favorite holiday of the year, although it has become almost overwhelmed by the crush of the holidays and the emphasis on shopping and spending.

Thanksgiving is now what it was in 1621: a time of family, friends, sharing a bountiful feast, and giving thanks for the good things that happened over the past year. And even if some of the events of 2011 aren't those we would ordinarily be thankful for, Thanksgiving is a time to look for the good — to see the glass as half full, just as the pilgrims recognized that having half of their numbers survive was something of a miracle.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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