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HOLIDAY HISTORY - November 23, 2006

I was reading the book, “America Celebrates,” published by Ideals in 1996, and found more about the history of the holiday through the writings of Alice Brotherton and Gladys Taber. It also includes part of William Bradford’s own account. I am surprised (also ashamed) that it took this long in my life to become aware of more of the facts of the first Thanksgiving.

In November of 1621, the residents of Plymouth Plantation, a Massachusetts Bay settlement of English religious separatists known as Pilgrims, celebrated a feast of Thanksgiving. In the year since their arrival in the New World, the brave Pilgrims had seen 43 of the original 103 perish. They had endured a colder and harsher winter than anything they had ever imagined. They had cleared land by hand and built small homes, made peace with the Indians, and enjoyed good health.

They watched, worked and prayed all summer as their food supply dwindled and new crops grew. The Pilgrims were not celebrating a good harvest. There 20 acres of corn was a good crop, but their six acres of English crops -- peas, barley and wheat -- had failed. Bradford comments that this was due to the bad seed, late season, both, or some other defect, but they were able to increase the weekly food ration a little. In addition to one peck of meal per person, from the Mayflower’s supplies, they also received one peck of corn. All of this was a good reason to declare a holiday so that, as Bradford puts it, they might, “after a more special manner, rejoice together.”

They set a date in October and sent an invitation to Massosoit. They were dismayed when he showed up with 90 braves, but the great chief dispatched several hunters into the forest and so had five deer to contribute to the feast. The menu also included roast goose, roast duck, eels, clams, and other shellfish, two kinds of bread, and bowls of crisp watercress, leeks, and other “sallet greens.”

There is no record that they ate any of the wild turkeys, or the cranberries from the nearby bogs, or even pumpkin pie. It did mention wild plums and dried berries. It was a great holiday. The feasting went on for three days. Captain Miles Standish organized a parade, both Indians and Pilgrims played games of skill and chance, and there was plenty of singing and dancing. The celebration was a success and they repeated it every year

The first Thanksgiving was barely over, when the Pilgrims discovered they had overestimated their harvest. The meager weekly ration had to be cut in half, and people braced themselves for another bitter winter. Still, they did not lose hope. With God’s help, they would survive.

The lesson is worth remembering, because when life seems grim, it is good to be reminded of those early Pilgrims and their courage and fortitude, but especially of their faith.

Thanksgiving began as an official holiday in 1789 when President George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving Day in honor of the newly signed Constitution, which guaranteed civil and religious freedom in the new nation. “It is the duty of nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection.”

Thanksgiving was celebrated sporadically and regionally, but did not become an annual tradition until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, when the threat to the Union’s survival made Americans more aware than ever of the blessings of their citizenship.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” had been promoting a national day of Thanksgiving since 1846. She urged Americans to begin this day as “a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.”

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was hopeful for the survival of the Union after the Union victory at Gettysburg, and proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day. Presidents, from that time forward, have regularly issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations.

At our Thanksgiving service, the pastor read a very lengthy list of blessings. My thought at the time was, “There is enough, just on his list, to thank God five or more times every day of this week.”

This harvest celebration reminds Americans of the trials and joys of our Pilgrim ancestors and the reasons for their thankful hearts that long ago autumn.

*          *          *          *          *

Happy birthday, Lisa!

Nov. 15 was Lisa’s birthday. I can remember because it was Carl’s birthday, too. I also remember that back in November of 2002, Lisa came to work for the Chronicle and I was timidly assuming the position of publisher.

Newton, Maureen, Bill, Lisa and I had a lot of learning and adjusting to do. Now, four years later, we have added Bill Bailey and Lisa Sheldon to the staff.

As I count my blessings this week, I thank God for these coworkers that truly have Calhoun County’s best interests in mind as they do their work.

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