History of Thanksgiving: the Secular and the Sacred

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The idea of the Pilgrims fleeing England due to persecution to come to America is not quite historically accurate, at least as the starting point. Rather, over a decade earlier they had already left England for Holland as Dissenters of the Church of England. They were not willing to comply with obligatory Church of England worship practices and were therefore subject to fines if they stayed in England. These Pilgrims were Puritan Calvinists in their theology and found the Dutch Calvinism more tolerant to their religious practice. However, they found that in Holland their children were forgetting how to speak English and were adopting Dutch customs too liberal for their sensibilities.


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The Pilgrims disembarked Holland by way of England departing from Dartmouth, Devon and spent about two months crossing the Atlantic for the American coast. Weather was not their friend.

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Plymouth Rock


There are several other accounts that compete for “First Thanksgiving” in America both in terms of date and location.

  • Irish: on February 21, 1621 a ship arrived from Dublin with food stocks at Plymouth Rock for the starving Pilgrims. The date differs from the aforementioned Autumn thanksgiving feast date.
  • Spanish: more a religious service than a holiday, explorers in San Elizario, Texas held a thanksgiving feast in 1592. Other claims point to a Spanish celebration on September 8, 1565 in St Augustine, Florida.
  • Virginia: the founding charter in Charles City County, Virginia by the Berkeley Hundred — the early Virginia Colony’s Berkeley Plantation land grant — pins a thanksgiving service to 1619.

Presidential Proclamations

One of the first general proclamations was made in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676. President George Washington in 1789 issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in honor of the new constitution. During the 19th century, an increasing number of states observed the day annually, each appointing its own day. President Abraham Lincoln, on October 3, 1863, by presidential proclamation appointed the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, due to the unremitting efforts of Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.


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The idea of a day set apart to celebrate the completion of the harvest and to render homage to the Spirit who caused the fruits and crops to grow is both ancient and universal. The practice of designating a day of thanksgiving for specific spiritual or secular benefits has been followed in many countries.

Silicon Valley Tech Exec: Cloud, Data Storage, Automation. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, andpop culture. Blog: http://billpetro.com

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