Pilgrims who sailed to this country aboard the Mayflower
were originally members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan
sect). They had earlier fled their home in England and sailed to
Holland (The Netherlands) to escape religious persecution. There,
they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but they eventually became
disenchanted with the Dutch way of life, thinking it ungodly. Seeking
a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company
to finance a pilgrimage to America. Most of those making the trip
aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists, but were hired to protect
the company's interests. Only about one-third of the original colonists
Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their
first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following
fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower.
But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining
colonists decided to celebrate with a feast -- including 91 Indians
who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is believed
that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without
the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional English
harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance. It lasted
William Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese.
It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However,
it is certain that they had venison. The term "turkey" was used
by the Pilgrims to mean
sort of wild fowl.
modern staple at almost every Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie.
But it is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The
supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread
or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and
they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop. There
was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There was no domestic
cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still
considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. But the feast did
include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams,
venison, and plums.
"thanksgiving" feast was not repeated the following year. But in
1623, during a severe drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer
service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the
very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving,
again inviting their Indian friends. It wasn't until June of 1676
that another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.
June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts,
held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good
fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous
vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June
29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving
celebration probably did not include the Indians, as the celebration
was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists' recent victory
over the "heathen natives,"
October of 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined
in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic
victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.
Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although
some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many
feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national
holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea
of having a day of thanksgiving.
was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually
led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials
championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine,
and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 40-year
campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents,
Hale's obsession became a reality when, in 1863, President Lincoln
proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national
day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every president after Lincoln. The
date was changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt,
who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to
create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against
this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to
its original date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was
finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth
Thursday in November.
of one of the most celebrated holidays
has a lot of history.
origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced
sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is
now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated
their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer
and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time
of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed
that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the
worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of
October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the
ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble
and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly
spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make
predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on
the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source
of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where
the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the
Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes,
typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to
tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they
re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that
evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the
A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory.
In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic
lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional
Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late
October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of
the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess
of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation
of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition
of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All
Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed
today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival
of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration
was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas
(from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints'
Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be
called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in
A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day
to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with
big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels,
and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints',
All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.
American tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to
the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities,
poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries
called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the
family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged
by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving
food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred
to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who
would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food,
tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European
and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain
and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many
people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of
constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came
back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter
ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these
ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after
dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On
Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place
bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent
them from attempting to enter.
of a holiday
European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween
customs with them. Because of the rigid Protestant belief systems
that characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in
colonial times was extremely limited there. It was much more common
in Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs
of different European ethnic groups, as well as the American Indians,
meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.
The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held
to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of
the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial
Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories
and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth
century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was
not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with
new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of
Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize
the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English
traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house
to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became
today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. Young women believed that, on
Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future
husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into
a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than
about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century,
Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common
way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the
season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers
and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque"
out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween
lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning
of the twentieth century.
the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered
holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment.
Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism
began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during
this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism
and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the
young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties
baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom
or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920
and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also
revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for
an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory,
families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing
the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition
was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an
estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's
second largest commercial holiday.