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Remember the Blessings of the First Thanksgiving

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This week Americans across the country will sit down to devour their turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie. Some will bow their heads and say a humble "thank you" to God for their blessings of the year, while others will just dive in and eat. Regardless of your family's practice, most people agree that this is one of our country's most popular and enjoyable holidays. But how many of us talk about the history of this particular holiday that makes it so unique! Let's do that right now!

Thanksgiving is our oldest national holiday; the only holiday in the United States decreed by a joint resolution of both houses of congress and yearly proclamations by our presidents, each proclamation having expressed gratitude to God; the only holiday of a religious nature that can be celebrated without religious reservation by Jews, Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants of all denominations), Muslims, or, for that matter, followers of any religion practiced in the United States; and a holiday observed only in the United States. It truly is unique.

From our earliest days in school, we have heard the story of that first Thanksgiving. Having arrived in the United States after a very difficult sea voyage that took much longer than expected, a group of 102 people (44 men and 58 women and children) made their way to shore. It was on Dec. 21, 1620, and the bitter cold of winter had already set in.

They took shelter for the winter in a makeshift building that the men had gone ashore and built during the previous weeks. They had intended to land in Jamestown, Va., where friends and relatives were expecting them and had made arrangements for getting them settled. But because of ship repairs and problems of navigation that resulted in their being considerably off course and spending several extra weeks trying to find Virginia, the ship finally dropped anchor for the winter at Plymouth, Mass., far north of their intended destination. These settlers had no place to stay or people to assist them.

It was a grueling winter, and, although accounts differ slightly, apparently during that first winter 49 people died -- 22 men and a combination of 27 women and children. So when spring came, there were only 53 of the original group remaining, 22 men and a mixture of 31 women and children of different ages. Not only had the weather and sickness made the winter difficult to undergo, but different people had come to America for different reasons, leading to disagreements: some were pilgrims seeking religious freedom; some were explorers seeking new frontiers; others had gone astray and were seeking to avoid the long arm of English law; and some were just looking for a new beginning in life.

The sea captain and his crew had remained on the ship during the winter, and when the worst of the winter was past and it was safe to sail back to Europe, the captain offered to take any or all of his original passengers back to England. You would think that, under the circumstances, there would have been at least a few who would have, perhaps reluctantly, taken him up on the opportunity to return home. Instead, every one decided to remain in Plymouth. And in spite of their different backgrounds, they worked together to survive and to succeed.

These early settlers made friends with the Indians who helped them get thought that first winter, and during the following spring and summer, the Indians helped them plant and harvest crops. Everything seemed to go well, and when fall came they had a bountiful harvest. In November of 1621 this small community, in spite of the hardships that had been endured, set aside three days to celebrate the blessings of the past year, especially the bountiful harvest. We refer to these people as the Pilgrims. And each year, when we celebrate our national day of Thanksgiving, we commemorate those three days when the Pilgrims, joined by about 90 of their Indian friends, found different ways of expressing their gratitude to God.

After that first Thanksgiving, different colonies and states periodically observed a thanksgiving of their own for one reason or another. It was not until 1789 that there was a presidential proclamation making Thanksgiving a national day of celebration for our country. It was in that year that George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving in honor of the new constitution. And in 1795 Washington declared another national day of Thanksgiving out of gratitude for the overall welfare of our young country. And during the 1800s a number of individual states paused to thank God on special occasions.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring that there should be a national day of Thanksgiving on the last day of November. And although there was no law requiring a national day of Thanksgiving, every president since Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving in the fall of the year. And except for a few early deviations, every president after Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as the date of Thanksgiving, until FDR.

In order to provide more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for holiday commerce, in 1939, when there were five Thursdays in November, President Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving, and in 1940 and 1941, when there were only four Thursdays in November, he declared the third Thursdays to be Thanksgiving. But on Dec. 26, 1941, a law passed by both houses of the United States Congress and signed by President Roosevelt settled the matter; it set the fourth Thursday of November as a legal federal holiday of Thanksgiving to be observed annually from then on.

So, this week, when you are observing Thanksgiving with your family or friends, take some time to remember the rich history of this very popular holiday, focusing on the blessings of the past year, as has always been the purpose of our Thanksgiving holiday. For our country, and for many families, this has been a very difficult year, and you may think that there isn't anything to be thankful for. Just remember that, in spite of the terrible hardships the original Pilgrims suffered, they found reasons enough to be thankful to celebrate for three days. And since then there have been years of war, famine, dust bowls, depression and so forth; yet, our nation has always found reasons to celebrate Thanksgiving. We can all find reasons to be thankful this year.