For many of us in the United States, the meaning of Thanksgiving usually includes feasting, four-day weekends, football games, floats, family reunions, or a forerunner to Christmas festivities. But the word “thanksgiving,” when literally translated is an expression of gratitude.
The “First Thanksgiving,” however, was neither a feast nor a holiday, but a simple gathering. Following the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, the Pilgrims suffered the loss of 46 of their original 102 colonists. With the help of 91 native Wampanoag Indians, the remaining Pilgrims survived the bitter winter and yielded a bountiful harvest in 1621. In celebration, a traditional English harvest festival lasting three days brought the Pilgrims and natives to unite in a “thanksgiving” observance.
The 1621 feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained wild turkeys, waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. Many of the foods that were included in the first feast (except, notably, the seafood) have since gone on to become staples of the modern Thanksgiving dinner.
The centerpiece of contemporary Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada is a large meal, generally centered on a large roasted turkey. It is served with a variety of side dishes which vary from traditional dishes such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, to ones that reflect regional or cultural heritage. The majority of the dishes in the traditional American version of Thanksgiving dinner are made from foods native to the New World, as according to tradition the Pilgrims received these foods, or learned how to grow them, from the Native Americans.
Thanksgiving dinner is the largest eating event in the United States; people eat more on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.
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After the “First Thanksgiving,” over 150 years later, America’s first President George Washington did proclaim Thanksgiving a National holiday in 1789. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as the official day of Thanksgiving in 1863, and Congress has sanctioned it as a legal holiday as of 1941.