HARVEST HOME OR THANKSGIVING?
In a letter from “E.W.” (Edward Winslow) to a friend in England, he says: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” Winslow continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”
In 1622, without his approval, Winslow’s letter was printed in a pamphlet that historians commonly call Mourt’s Relation. This published description of the First Thanksgiving was lost during the Colonial period. It was rediscovered in Philadelphia around 1820. Antiquarian Alexander Young included the entire text in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). Reverend Young saw a similarity between his contemporary American Thanksgiving and the 1621 Harvest Feast. In the footnotes that accompanied Winslow’s letter, Young writes, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
The American Thanksgiving also has its origin in the faith practices of Puritan New England, where strict Calvinist doctrine sanctioned only the Sabbath, fast days and thanksgivings as religious holidays or “holy days.” To the Puritans, a true “thanksgiving” was a day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking God for His special Providence. Auspicious events, such as the sudden ending of war, drought or pestilence, might inspire a thanksgiving proclamation. It was like having an extra Sabbath during the week. Fasts and thanksgivings never fell on a Sunday. In the early 1600s, they were not annual events. Simultaneously instituted in Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Thanksgiving became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century and it was proclaimed each autumn by the individual Colonies.
The holiday changed as the dogmatic Puritans of the 17th century evolved into the 18th century’s more cosmopolitan Yankees. By the 1700s, the emotional significance of the New England family united around a dinner table overshadowed the civil and religious importance of Thanksgiving. Carried by Yankee emigrants moving westward and the popular press, New England’s holiday traditions would spread to the rest of the nation.
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