The myth of the First Thanksgiving is held dear by most Americans: Pilgrims, having reaped a glorious harvest of squash and other vegetables, shared a feast with Indian friends in 1621.
The reality, alas, is a bit different.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth landed in the New World in December 1620, and the following spring celebrated a day of Thanksgiving for having survived the cold Massachusetts winter. There was no harvest feast because the crops hadn’t been planted yet. Only half of the original 102 settlers survived that first winter.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, earlier English settlers had already celebrated two official annual days of Thanksgiving each December at Berkeley’s Hundred on the James River (now known as Berkeley Plantation).
The friendly First Thanksgiving rivalry between Virginia and Massachusetts dates to the 1930s and continues today. In truth, no one knows when the First Thanksgiving took place because it was a normal part of everyday life for Virginia Indians as well as Spanish and French Catholics in Florida.
The consistent factor in all Thanksgivings—regardless of year, population, or location—has been the religious nature of the day, with the full support and encouragement of elected officials from the town mayor to the U.S. President.
America is blessed with freedom of religion, not from religion, thanks to the First Amendment, and we continue to embrace the Judeo-Christian principles that helped shape our great nation politically and sociologically. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As Ronald Reagan said:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
You and I must continue to fight for religious freedom. Never rest; the opposition never does.
One way to fight that fight is to practice the religion of your choice in a public way.
Let us all enjoy our families, big meals, football, and parades on Thanksgiving, and maybe take time to attend a religious Thanksgiving service at a place of worship near you, recalling that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to the free exercise of religion and that all Thanksgivings in America, past and present, are centered on gratitude to God for His blessings.