A feast to remember

Laura Welch

There are few things in the world better than sitting down to a good meal with the people you love most. Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in this way. However, you might be surprised to learn that the first Thanksgiving was not celebrated in the manner most believe.

The idea of setting aside time to gather as a community and give thanks is not exclusive to the modern-day American society. Many cultures have been celebrating some form of Thanksgiving for thousands of years.

One version of a thanksgiving celebration is the Jewish festival of Sukkot. This ancient festival recognizes the bounty Yahweh has graciously given to the earth. The Romans also celebrated a feast similar to Thanksgiving called Cerelia, named after Ceres, the goddess of the harvest.

Although such practices occurred for many centuries, the pilgrims of the New World most likely derived their feast of the harvest from farmers’ customs in Europe. European farmers would gather grains and fruits and fill a large goat horn with the symbols of plenty. This was referred to as a “cornucopia” and served as a reminder to the people of all they had to be thankful for.

The first Thanksgiving feast is commonly thought to be the extensive meal that occurred during the year 1621 in Plymouth, Mass. In actuality, the first meal shared in thanksgiving with Native Americans took place in West Texas as part of Coronado’s treasure-seeking expedition in 1541. This event took place in Palo Duro Canyon and consisted of the sharing of Eucharist with the amiable Teya.

The festival that is generally known as the first Thanksgiving did, in fact, take place in Plymouth in 1621, but was neither referred to as a feast of thanksgiving, nor did it directly trigger the annual holiday of Thanksgiving that we know today. To the devoutly religious Puritan Pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving meant a day of prayer and fasting. The feast the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians had in order to celebrate a successful harvest at the end of a trying year was not officially deemed a thanksgiving, but indeed served as a symbol of gratitude for their improbable fortune.

Contrary to the traditions of a modern Thanksgiving, the 1621 Thanksgiving did not occur on the fourth Thursday of November. Historians believe the feast happened sometime between Sept. 11 and Nov. 11. The festivities lasted three days while Pilgrims and Indians feasted together on numerous types of fowl and vegetables. Seafood such as cod, lobster and eel probably served as main dishes on the menu.

The first Thanksgiving that occurred after the United States was formed took place not far from the University. In 1777, Gen. George Washington stopped his troops on the way into Valley Forge to mark a day of Thanksgiving as instructed by the Continental Congress. As president, Washington declared Nov. 26, 1789, a national day of prayer and remembrance.

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit, and in 1863 announced the last Thursday in November to be a day of giving thanks. It was not until almost 80 years later, in 1941, that Congress approved a bill proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that officially made the fourth Thursday of every year Thanksgiving Day.

Today, Thanksgiving is marked by parades, football, food and family. It has developed from its humble beginnings into a holiday celebrated by millions of Americans each year. Thanksgiving brings people together unlike any holiday.

No matter what religion or race people are, all they need in order to celebrate is something to be thankful for.