14 Oct
2009
Posted in: Food
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History of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is so closely associated with American images of turkey dinners with family and friends that we haven’t thought of whether the holiday could be something more than remembering the Pilgrims. Actually, Thanksgiving has been celebrated in ancient times and in many different cultues, not just in the Western world.

 

Ancient Times

In ancient times, Thanksgiving was usually celebrated after the harvest season when the produce were abundant and the people were blessed with enough food lasting through the winter. In ancient Greece, Thanksgiving was celebrated during the feast held in honor of the goddess, Demeter, the deity of agriculture. Because the celebration was heavily associated with fertility and childbearing, married women would build shelters and fast during the first and second days of the festival.

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In Rome, they celebrated the festival each year on October 4 in honor of Ceres, the goddess of grains. In China, their harvest festival was a feast for the moon’s birthday and special “moon cakes,” round and yellow like the moon, would be baked. In Egypt, they honored their god of vegetation and fertility, Min, with music, dancing, and a great feast. And, among Hebrews, they observed a harvest festival called Sukkoth, which was a feast eaten inside huts.

All these festivals were held in honor of a deity who oversaw the bearing of fruits, the growth of their crops, and the fertility of the womb. Each event was celebrated with much feasting, dancing, and singing. Offerings were made and pleas for another good harvest and for children were sent out to the deities. These same traditional practices are still being observed today despite the prevalence of Christianity.

American Thanksgiving

During the time when the Pilgrims were just newly settled in the New World, they experienced a period of hardship, tragedy, and sorrow. They were used to an industrialized England and were suddenly forced to confront the wilderness in the New World. Many of them had died while struggling against the harshness of the land, and the threats of the Native Americans. Beating the odds of surviving, becoming friends with their American Indian neighbors, and producing abundant harvest that would sufficiently last through winter were great reasons to give thanks to God.

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Similar to ancient peoples thanking their deities, the Pilgrims also gave their thanks to their Lord through a big feast with families and friends. However, unlike the ancient times, there was not much dancing or drinking of wine, or even singing. Thanksgiving among the Pilgrims was a solemn ceremony.

The custom of celebrating a feast after harvest was observed through the years, but there was no specific date proclaimed. However, in 1817, the state of New York adopted Thanksgiving as an annual holiday for the state. Other states followed suit, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, they each have their appointed Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national date for Thanksgiving Day. Since the, each succeeding President has declared a national Thanksgiving Day date, usually designating the fourth Thrusday of each November as the holiday.




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