The History of Thanksgiving

The history of Thanksgiving in the United States stretches all the way back to the early 17th century. In September 1620, a group of about 102 religious separatists called Pilgrims fled persecution in England on a small ship called the Mayflower. Sixty–six days later, they arrived at Plymouth Rock in what would later become the state of Massachusetts and set to work establishing a colony.

That first winter was brutal. Many of the Pilgrims spent it on board the Mayflower, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and other outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of them would survive the winter.

Weakened by malnutrition and illness, the remaining Pilgrims permanently moved ashore in March 1621. There they were greeted by Squanto, an English speaking member of the Pawtuxet tribe of Native Americans. Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped broker an alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, a local tribe.

In November 1621, the Pilgrims had their first successful corn harvest. To celebrate, Governor William Bradford organized a feast and invited the Pilgrims’ Native American allies to join them. This is commonly recognized as the first Thanksgiving, and on the menu were such items as lobster, seal, deer, swan and other fowl.

Other interesting facts about Thanksgiving

Many historians dispute that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. They argue that the earliest attested “Thanksgiving” celebration in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565 in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. Others point out that Thanksgiving services were routine in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607.

Thanksgiving is also observed in Canada; Leiden, Netherlands; Liberia and Norfolk Island.

Thanksgiving wasn’t officially a national holiday until 1863, when, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. And it wasn’t until 1941 that the US passed federal legislation declaring that Thanksgiving be held the fourth Thursday of each November.

Kwanzaa traditions

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration that begins on December 26 and ends on January 1. Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates one of seven core principles that are based on ancient customs of Africa. Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday; it was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Korenga to reaffirm African culture and heritage and is based on the first fruit harvest celebrations of Africa.

Here are the seven days of Kwanzaa and the traditions celebrated each day.

Umoja – A celebration of unity in the circles of one’s life including family, friends and the community as well as the African population at large.

Kujichagulia – Self-determination and creating and speaking for oneself.

Ujima – Collective work and responsibility in which communities are built and maintained and problems are solved through the collective.

Ujamaa – Cooperative economics including building and supporting local businesses and creating an economic network within the community.

Nia – Purpose, in which the community is at the core of the culture.

Kuumba – Creativity, which can be expressed in many ways and at many different levels, which helps enrich the community.

Imani – Faith and a belief in self and all members of the community.

Decorations for Kwanzaa are often homemade, which tie in with the principle of Kuumba (creativity). Kwanzaa colors are red, black and green and a candle holder called the kinara, holds seven candles, which are lit on the respective days of celebration.

The Kwanzaa feast takes place on December 31 and often features stews with sides of okra and black beans and rice. Other popular dishes prepared for Kwanzaa include Kunde (black-eyed peas and tomatoes) and Kuku Paka (chicken in coconut and tomato sauce).

A Brief History of the Christmas Tree

The exact history of the Christmas tree is somewhat disputed. Many believe it has its roots in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Romans, for example, marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They knew the solstice meant that farms and orchards would soon be green and fruitful again. To celebrate, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen trees.

The introduction of the evergreen as a Christmas tradition is generally believed to date back to 16th century Germany, when devout Christians started bringing decorated trees into their homes.

And it was Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, who first added candles to the trees. The story goes that as he was walking home one evening he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens. To recreate the scene for his family, Martin Luther put an evergreen in the main room of his home and wired its branches with lighted candles.

The arrival of the Christmas tree in America dates back to 1846, when Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. The queen was popular with British subjects and fashion conscious Americans on the East Coast, both of whom soon started bringing Christmas trees into their homes.

By the early 20th century, as ornaments expanded to include electric lights that could glow for days on end, Christmas trees began appearing in town squares and homes across America. And they’ve been a permanent holiday fixture ever since.