Picture above: the Beacon of Hope Monument in Belfast's Thanksgiving Square
The origins of the holiday go all the way back to those first few pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to brave the wild frontiers of the vast new world. The story goes that the pilgrims shared a bountiful feast with the native people in an act of peace and friendship. Interestingly, there has been some question regarding exactly how the pilgrims managed to source the food for this incredibly significant meal. There are two different explanations for this, one is that the harvest of 1621 was especially bountiful, and that the pilgrims used the great feast as a means of giving thanks for their good fortune. However there is another story which may have been the true origin of this long-standing holiday.
It has long been understood that life was extremely difficult for the first settlers in America. After a long, arduous journey across the rough Atlantic ocean, the pilgrims found themselves in a strange new land, without the modern comforts to which they were accustomed. They were met with dangers and challenges at every turn, and for many of these challenges they were simply unprepared. One such issue came in the form of the cold harsh winter months. They had no idea just how difficult life would be in those months of snow and freezing temperatures. The winter of 1630 was a particularly harrowing one, and it seems that many of the pilgrims were considering giving up on their lives in the new world and returning to their countries of origin. Such was their discomfort that they were willing to undergo the difficult trans-atlantic journey once more. There are some sources that state that the pilgrims were barely surviving on a diet of shellfish and nuts. However, all that changed on the 15th of February 1631, when a ship called the Lyon landed in Plymouth. The ship was captained by an Englishman named William Pierce (1591-1641) and had been sent from Dublin by a local merchant whose daughter was married to one of the pilgrims. The ship was only carrying 20 passengers but was heavily laden with much needed provisions for the hungry pilgrims. So joyful and relieved were the people of Plymouth to receive such a bounty, that they held a large feast in thanks for their good fortune in being saved. The 20th of February had previously been established as a day of prayer and fasting, but in recognition of the arrival of much needed food, the date was repurposed as one of feasting and thanks. Though the February date may call this origin story into question, it should be noted that Thanksgiving was not fixed as the last Thursday of November until President Abraham Lincoln.
Historians are still divided as to which event marks the true origins of Thanksgiving, but regardless of when it started the holiday has become an important day on the calendar for Americans both at home in the States and abroad where this day of gratitude and celebration is being adopted in small but meaningful ways.
Read our Timeline Chronicle about the Lyon arriving in Plymouth
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