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The History of Thanksgiving - 2000-11-18

Thursday, November 28, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. It is a day for expressing thanks for the good things in life, especially family and friends.

The writer O. Henry called it the one day that is purely American. For many Americans, Thanksgiving is the only time of year when all members of a family gather together. More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is a celebration of family and home. On Thanksgiving, family and friends enjoy a long day of cooking, eating, and talking. The Thanksgiving meal almost always includes turkey meat with a bread mixture cooked inside. Other traditional foods are sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Stores sell more food at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year. And many people eat more food on Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year.

Thanksgiving is celebrated every year on the 4th Thursday of November, during autumn in the United States, after crops are gathered. When the first European settlers in America gathered their crops, they celebrated. They thanked their God for the success of the harvest. Tradition says the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by Pilgrim settlers from England. There is evidence that settlers in other parts of America held earlier Thanksgiving celebrations. But the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving story is the most popular.

The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who fled oppression in England. They went first to the Netherlands, then they left that country to establish a colony in North America. The Pilgrims landed in 1620 in what later became known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was difficult. Their first months in America were difficult, too. About 100 Pilgrims landed just as autumn was turning to winter. During the cold months that followed, about half of them died.

When spring came, the Pilgrims began planting crops. A Native American Indian named Squanto helped them. When summer ended, the Pilgrims had a good harvest of corn and barley. Some vegetables had grown poorly. Yet there was enough food to last through the winter.

The Pilgrims decided to hold a celebration to give thanks for their harvest. Writings from that time say Pilgrim leader William Bradford set a date late in the year. He invited members of a nearby Indian tribe to take part. That Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days.

The Pilgrims did not plan to establish a yearly Thanksgiving holiday. But as the American colonies grew, Thanksgiving or harvest celebrations were held in many towns and settlements. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the 4th Thursday in November as a national holiday of Thanksgiving. At that time, the United States was fighting a civil war. President Lincoln liked the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday that would also celebrate national unity. Since then, the United States has always celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.

Over the years, some new traditions were added to America's Thanksgiving celebration. For example, a number of professional and university football games are played on Thanksgiving Day. Some of the games are broadcast on national television.

Several Thanksgiving day parades are broadcast on television, too. These parades are organized by big stores in several American cities. The parade organized by the Macy's store in New York is the biggest. Giant balloons 200 meters high float above the street. The balloons are in the shape of creatures from popular cartoons and television programs. People on the ground hold heavy ropes so the balloons do not fly away.

Thanksgiving also is a time when Americans share what they have with those who do not have much. Churches and other groups provide free meals for old people, the homeless, and the poor. Many Americans give turkeys or other food to these groups. Some spend part of the day helping to prepare and serve the meals.

Religious ceremonies are an important part of Thanksgiving day for many Americans. People join in prayers and songs of Thanksgiving. One of the most famous songs is called "Prayer of Thanksgiving."

The words and music tell of the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving: We gather with our family. We share what we have. And we give thanks for the good things of the past year.