Why do we have Thanksgiving?

Ernie the Eagle

Are your kids asking questions about Thanksgiving? Here are a few answers for them!

In 1620, there wasn’t much religious freedom in England. If you didn’t belong to the Anglican Church of England, or wanted to worship in your own way, you were persecuted by the government and often by your neighbors, as well. So 102 British citizens got together, bought a tiny ship called the Mayflower and left England for the New World seeking religious freedom. The 66-day voyage was treacherous, but it finally ended when the Mayflower sailed into what we now know as Massachusetts Bay. The passengers went ashore to establish a colony.

Since they had sailed from Plymouth, England, they named the site of their village Plymouth.

Unfortunately, they had arrived during a brutal winter. Most of the colonists had to stay on board the ship where they died by the score of contagious diseases, scurvy and exposure to the elements. By springtime, half of them had died. In March 1621, the half that had survived went ashore to establish their village.

The colonists were astonished to find, when they got ashore, an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. He came back several days later with a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who also spoke English (he had been held captive for a time by an English sea captain). This Indian, named Squanto, taught the sick and weakened newcomers how to hunt, fish, cultivate corn and extract sap from maple trees. He also helped them form a deep and lasting alliance with the Wampanoag tribe.

After the first corn harvest proved to be a success for the colonists – Pilgrims, as we now know them – Virginia Gov. William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate. He invited a number of the Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive, including Wampanoag chief Massasoit. This is considered the first Thanksgiving celebration, although the word Thanksgiving was not used to describe it for many years.

Throughout American history, various days of thanks were declared for one blessing or another, but it wasn’t until the Civil War that Thanksgiving became an official American observance. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, bowing to the insistence of governors, senators and other politicians, announced Thanksgiving as a federal holiday as a way to give thanks and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.



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