Thanksgiving Word Origins

During the winter of 1620, half of the 102 Mayflower passengers (Pilgrims) who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, died. The following spring, a Native American named Squanto helped those who survived plant corn and barley. Their autumn harvest was a success and the colony held a thanksgiving celebration, inviting Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, to join their feast. Encyclopaedia Britannica gives this account:

"Plymouth's Thanksgiving began with a few colonists going out "fowling," possibly for turkeys but more probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks, since they "in one day killed as much as...served the company almost a week." Next, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance at the settlement's gate, doubtlessly unnerving the 50 or so colonists. Nevertheless, over the next few days the two groups socialized without incident. The Wampanoag contributed venison to the feast, which included the fowl and probably fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables, and beer."

The standard Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie does not really reflect the original Plymouth event!

The US Continental Congress proclaimed a national Thanksgiving upon the enactment of the Constitution, but by 1798 the celebration of Thanksgiving was left up to the individual states. A women's magazine editor ("Godey's Lady's Book") named Sarah Hale petitioned to establish a national day of thanksgiving for more than 20 years. In 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln finally proclaimed August 6 as Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday. In 1867, President Andrew Johnson moved it to the last Thursday in November. Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried moving it up a week — to stimulate the economy by allowing more time for Christmas shopping — and Ulysses S. Grant (in 1870) moved it to November 18 — Thanksgiving Day was officially set in 1941 as a legal federal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday in October.

The autumn harvest has always been a cause for celebration. The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, their corn goddess, in October. The Romans had Cerealia, held also in October, to honor their grain goddess, Ceres. Jewish people observe Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, in autumn. And both North and South American Indians celebrated the harvest. Most of these celebrations were social and religious occasions. There were also English Harvest Home celebrations and Dutch thanksgiving traditions, which the Pilgrims knew about before traveling to America. Even in America, it is said that there were at least two "Thanksgiving" celebrations before the one in Plymouth. In 1607, English settlers shared a harvest feast and prayer meeting with Abnaki Indians near the mouth of the Kennebec River. In 1619, there was a celebration in Virginia where colonists who had traveled up the James River came ashore and joined Native Americans to give thanks.

Cornucopia is a Latin form evolved from two words cornu copiae, "horn of plenty." The horn of plenty was fabled to be the horn of the goat nymph Amalthaea, whose milk was fed to the baby Zeus in Greek mythology. The cornucopia is a goat's horn filled with corn and other grains, flowers, and fruit. It has long been a symbol of fruitfulness and abundance and at Thanksgiving, baskets shaped like cornucopia are filled and put on display.

The word feast comes from the Latin festa (plural of festum), "festive ceremonies" and was originally a religious celebration commemorating a person, like the Bible's Passover. There are movable feasts like Easter, whose date changes each year, and immovable feasts, like Christmas and saints' days. The word feast came into English in the 13th century.

Indian corn is the common name of Zea Mays, also called maize, a North American plant or the grain produced by it. Indian corn was cultivated by Native Americans at the time of the discovery of America. Columbus and other explorers introduced corn to Europe, from where it spread to all areas of the world suitable to its cultivation. Native Americans taught colonists to grow the indigenous grains, which included some varieties of yellow corn that are popular as food as well as varieties with red, blue, pink, and black kernels, often banded, spotted, or striped, that are now regarded as ornamental. In the United States, these variegated corns are traditionally used in autumn harvest decorations and are called Indian corn.

The oldest Thanksgiving Day parade (Latin parare, "to make ready, procure, prepare, furnish"), dating to 1920, is Gimbel's department store's in Philadelphia. Macy's department store held its first parade in 1924.

The pilgrims were originally called Puritans because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England, which they felt was too caught up with ritual. Many people studied the Bible and listened to sermons in private homes — without the ritual activities — and if they were caught, would have been considered treasonous. The 102 people who made the voyage on the Mayflower included some people who decided to travel to the New World for these religious reasons. The basic meaning of pilgrim, was "traveler, wanderer" and our English word can be traced back through French to Latin pelegrinus, an alternation of peregrinum, "foreigner."

Turkey was originally the name for African guinea fowl and eventually for the Western hemisphere fowl with which the earlier fowl was confused. The existence of the wild turkey in North America was recorded in 1613 by Samuel Purchas in his book "Pilgrimage." Because of their size (20-30 pounds), the turkey was relatively easy to catch and became a source of food for early American settlers. The turkey did not become part of Thanksgiving tradition until the 1860s. Benjamin Franklin lobbied unsuccessfully to have the turkey declared the national bird of the United States. The custom of snapping the turkey's wishbone (the forked bone in front of the breastbone) goes back to ancient Roman times, making it a tradition long before the Pilgrims came to America.







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