The so-called first Thanksgiving occurred in Plymouth Colony, Mass., in 1621. It was a feast held one year after the Pilgrims landed to celebrate their first successful harvest, a three-day joint celebration by the colonists and the resident Native American tribe. They had plenty of reasons to celebrate, including being lucky enough to have survived the perilous Atlantic crossing a year before. Only about half of the people on board the Mayflower actually lived through the ordeal.
The accommodations might have been a large part of the problem. There were 102 passengers and 26 crewmen on board a ship that measured about 25 by 100 feet and was not meant to carry passengers but rather freight. They were on board for two months and hit many dangerous storms, finally landing in Plymouth, instead of their planned destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.
Some of the leaders who emerged from the group—including John Alden and Miles Standish—were crewmen who had been hired by the Pilgrim Separatists to help out on the trip and build houses when they went ashore. And some of the crew had actually crossed the ocean on previous trips exploring the New World. One of them, Stephen Hopkins, who had been shipwrecked on Bermuda during a prior trip, was a neighbor of William Shakespeare. His Bermuda shipwreck is said to have been the basis for “The Tempest.”
These hardy survivors started the tradition we celebrate today, but it took nearly 30 years of campaigning by Sarah Josepha Hale, the first woman to edit an American magazine (and incidentally the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb”), to make it official. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, who had other things to think about, declared the last Thursday in November to be the national holiday of Thanksgiving.
This last-Thursday designation lasted until Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up to the third Thursday in November. The idea was to extend the Christmas shopping period and give businesses and the economy a boost—something merchants can sympathize with this year, given the late Thanksgiving and a mere 26 shopping days until Christmas. But people didn’t like the earlier date and nicknamed it “Franksgiving.” In 1941, therefore, Roosevelt signed a bill declaring that the holiday would fall on the fourth Thursday in November.
Though we think of the fearless Pilgrims as the creators of the first Thanksgiving, theirs was but a one-time celebration. The more important fact is that 53 persons survived such a tough journey across the ocean to start the great adventure in the New World, a circumstance for which we will always be thankful.
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate company in the Washington Metro area.