Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins
Annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty can be traced back to festivals and celebrations that span a host of cultures stretching back over the millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the Autumn harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a close resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.
Here in the UK the harvest festival, also known as the harvest home, is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox, which is often between 21-23 September.
Normally falling towards the end of September, or early October, the harvest festival is the closest thing the UK has to a day of thanksgiving when all the crops had been brought in. The whole community, including children, needed to help right up until the end, as lives depended on the success of the harvest. In the past they would be held as soon as the harvest had been completed and the final cartload triumphantly returned to the farm where the Harvest Supper, also known as the ‘Harvest Home’, would take place.
The word ‘harvest’ comes from the Old English word hærfest meaning ‘autumn’, aptly the season for gathering the food of the land. This was a vital time of year, when success was a genuine matter of life or death. A prosperous harvest ensured that a community would be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months. It’s therefore no surprise that it was also a time steeped in superstition and, if successful, much celebration. Many of these traditions even pre-date Christianity.
Historians have also noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of celebrating harvest long before Europeans set foot on their shores.
So although the current American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England with the arrival of the incredibly brave settlers who arrived on the Mayflower, the roots of the celebration are as old as humanity, with days of fasting during difficult times and days of feasting and celebration in times of plenty.
Thanksgiving At Plymouth
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers, an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World.
After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English.
Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days.
The Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.
So what is the connection with Morocco and the emergence of America as an independent nation?
At the beginning of the American Revolution, American merchant ships were subject to attack by Barbary Pirates who had dominated the seaways for centuries. (Indeed, the original Pilgrim settlers had themselves been attached by pirates in 1625 on a return trading voyage to Britain). During the revolution, American envoys tried to obtain protection from European powers, but to no avail. On December 20, 1777, Morocco’s Sultan Mohammed III declared that the American merchant ships would be under the protection of the sultanate and could thus enjoy safe passage.
So Morocco became the first nation to recognize the fledgling United States as an independent nation. The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship stands as the U.S.’s oldest non-broken friendship treaty. Signed by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it has been in continuous effect since 1786.
Following the re-organization of the U.S federal government upon the 1787 Constitution, President George Washington wrote a now venerated letter to the Sultan Sidi Mohamed strengthening the ties between the two countries.
The United States legation (consulate) in Tangier is the first property the American government ever owned abroad. The building now houses the Tangier American Legation Museum and is well worth a visit.
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