Across the Commonwealth and across the nation children are tracing their hands and adding construction paper feathers to make turkeys. And while they’re talking about Pilgrims in plain dress and black hats with buckles their parents are salivating over the thoughts of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Ah, the traditions of Thanksgiving Day…hardly any of which are based in fact. When most Americans think about Thanksgiving, thoughts turn to the Mayflower, Plymouth Plantation and, yes, the Pilgrims who, according to tradition held feast in 1621 a feast to give thanks to God for his bounty.
While, traditions aside, that may be true, it wasn’t the first American Thanksgiving. Almost two years prior to the New England feast, on December 4, 1619 settlers at Berkeley Hundred on the James River celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. For the Virginia settlers, the day was required by their charter. “We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Every year the Virginia Thanksgiving is celebrated at Berkeley Plantation in present day Charles City County.
But, much to the chagrin of the Virginians, there is yet another claim to the first thanksgiving. In September 1565, Spanish mariner Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving to commemorate the successful sea voyage and founding of the town of St. Augustine. That’s well before the English settlers arrived in Virginia in 1607 and even a good ten years before the attempts to settle at Roanoke Island in North Carolina. So it appears that Virginia may still lay claim to the first Anglican Thanksgiving, but certainly not the first celebration on American soil.
Why then, the emphasis on the New England celebration?
In spite of the prior celebrations in Jamestown and St. Augustine, Thanksgiving was not celebrated as a national holiday and was mainly observed in New
England. Intrigued by the history of the 1621 feast magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale embarked upon a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. In her campaign she published recipes and menus for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie. Her creations included traditions that related in no way to the truth about the Pilgrims.
Hale didn’t stop there in her quest for a national holiday. In her quest, she wrote to five American presidents. Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln. Her letters produced no results until in 1863, while presiding over a nation at war, Abraham Lincoln issued the following proclamation:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been
filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and health-
ful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly
enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from
which they come, others have been added, which
are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot
fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is
habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence
of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of
unequaled magnitude and severity, which has some-
times seemed to foreign States to invite and to
provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved
with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws
have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has
prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military
conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted
by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the
fields of peaceful industry to the national defence,
have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship;
the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements,
and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the
precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly
than heretofore. Population has steadily increased,
notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the
camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country,
rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength
and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years
with large increase of freedom. No human counsel
hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out
these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the
Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger
for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It
has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be
solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as
with one heart and one voice by the whole American
People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in
every part of the United States, and also those who
are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign
lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of
November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise
to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the
ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular
deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble
penitence for our national perverseness and
disobedience, commend to His tender care all those
who have become widows, orphans, mourners or
sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we
are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the
interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the
wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may
be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full
enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
Prior to the proclamation, only Washington’s Birthday
and Independence Day were observed as national
Since the Berkeley celebration and for that matter the St. Augustine celebration took place in what was, at the time of the proclamation, the Confederate States of America, there is some speculation among Virginians that Lincoln acquiesced to Ms. Hale’s request to draw
attention away from Jamestown and the celebration there.
That there are competing histories of the first occasions of thanks would no doubt be perplexing to the early settlers. They set out not to establish a
holiday of excessive eating and endless football. Their celebrations of thanks were just that. Expressing the deep faith that they carried to this country, they thanked their creator and provider for his provision and protection.
Indeed as we pause this month to celebrate this holiday, it is not how we give thanks, or what we eat, or what we wear on this day. What matter is the act of giving thanks. The act of being grateful.
On that, we should all agree.