Held on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving in the United States began with a journey of pilgrims. These pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution and left England hoping for a better life. They first settled in Holland, but soon left for the New World in a ship called the Mayflower. They called themselves the “Saints” and the others who traveled with them the “Strangers”. The voyage was long and the conditions harsh and stressful, causing many problems between the two groups. When land was finally sighted the two groups pulled together and pledged to work together as equals. This agreement is known as the Mayflower Compact and the united group called themselves the Pilgrims.

They settled in Plymouth where they found a safe harbor, a large source of fish, and friendly native folk. The winter, however, was devastating. They lost over half of their population. The Pilgrims were disparaged and discouraged. During this time of anguish the local Native Americans befriended and helped the settlers. They taught the Pilgrims how to grow the indigenous corn and other native vegetables, how to use the native plants for medicines and flavorings, and how to identify the poisonous plants. By autumn they had built homes and had a good harvest with fish packed in salt and cured meats to survive the winter. They invited their new friends to a 3-day feast to celebrate and give thanks.

Unfortunately, the following season was not prosperous, but the Pilgrims persevered and endured. They had a harvest celebration annually-which was (and is) customary in many countries. With time the Pilgrims thrived and the colonies grew.

It wasn’t until 1863 that a national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln. Since that time each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation each year, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.

What was on the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving menu?
Well, it is not clear that turkey was actually served. Most fowl was generically called “turkey”. It is believed that venison was served along with lobsters, clams, fish, berries and pumpkin. However, there was no pumpkin pie. The flour supply was long gone and there was no milk or butter. The pumpkin was probably more of a savory dish cooked directly in the pumpkin shell. In addition, there were no mashed potatoes. They were considered poisonous since they (along with tomatoes) are a member of the nightshade family.

Nowadays, there is still a large Thanksgiving feast featuring the turkey that is baked, roasted, smoked or deep-fried. Accompaniments include sweet potatoes/yams, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce or relish (or both). Some families also have a ham. Dessert is a must with treats like pumpkin pie and pecan pie. Before partaking of the feast many families will go around the table and each person will give thanks for something. Watching sports and playing football are a favorite pastime as well as watching local parades or watching them on the television.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t eat too much!

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