Who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the USA?

"The First Thanksgiving" by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915) Courtesy of http://www.joyfulheart.com/thanksgiving/pilgrim_artwork.htm
“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915)
Courtesy of http://www.joyfulheart.com/thanksgiving/pilgrim_artwork.htm

The traditional story relates that in 1621, the governor of  the Pilgrims at Plymouth colony, William Bradford, declared a harvest festival of Thanksgiving, celebrating with the local Wampanoag native tribe who had helped them survive the previous winter.    http://www.ushistory.org/us/3b.asp

But when I lived in Texas, my friends there proudly informed me that the first Thanksgiving to be held in the territory of the future USA was in Texas.  The event occurred on May 23, 1541, when the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and 1,500 men who were looking for gold and survived severe hardships, celebrated a Day of Thanksgiving with local Indians at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle.  I tend to discount this one because they were explorers seeking treasure, not settlers.

However, on April 30, 1598, a group of colonists lead by Juan de Oñate celebrated a time of Thanksgiving after surviving a march through the desert in northern Mexico and then crossing the Rio Grande into the area of El Paso.  Some of the meal was provided by local natives.  http://www.texasalmanac.com/topics/history/timeline/first-thanksgiving 

Then I moved to Florida, where the city of St. Augustine says the first celebration was there.  On September 8, 1565, Captain General Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his fleet of soldiers and colonists held of feast of Thanksgiving with the local Timucuan natives.  http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/B_024_Augustine.html 

Other places, including Virginia and Maine, also claim the honor.  http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/thanksgiving/timeline/1863.html      http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_si/nmah/thanks.htm

Although of mild interest, these bragging rights really don’t matter.  The important point is to give thanks to God for His bountiful provision.  But these claims do establish that the tradition in our nation has deep roots, and crosses ethnic and denominational boundaries.

In the early years of our nation, the Continental Congress and many presidents declared days of Thanksgiving, but only sporadically.  Then in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln established the current annual tradition when he proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

The time of celebration this year is rare.  The Jewish holiday Hanukkah, normally celebrated near Christmas, actually starts before Thanksgiving. The first night of Hanukkah begins at sundown on the 27th of November, and Thanksgiving is on the 28th.  This conjunction last occurred in 1888 and some say it won’t happen again for another 77,000 years!

Hanukkah also includes a theme of thanksgiving.  In 167 BC Israel was ruled by Antiochus, king of the Seleucid Empire.  He banned Judaism, erected a statue to Zeus in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and slaughtered a pig on the altar.  The Jewish people revolted and finally recovered the sacred ground in Jerusalem in 165 BC.  Because the temple had been defiled, it needed cleansing and rededication in a ceremony lasting 8 days.  According to Talmudic tradition, only enough holy oil was available for one day, yet this supply miraculously lasted for the full eight days.  In commemoration of the event, an annual celebration started.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanukkah

Also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, this holiday was kept in the first century as well.   The Bible says that Jesus attended the feast:  “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (John 10:22-23 NIV).  http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/11/17/Jesus-Celebrates-Hanukkah!.aspx#.UpOqZ9KkoWI  

The dedication of the temple required the lights, thus the names for the festival and the traditional lighting of the nine-branch candelabra (8 days plus one to light the others).  Although not an Old Testament holiday, the celebration may have a special meaning for Christians.  John 8:10 states, “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”” (NIV).

Be thankful that the True Light came into our world.

So, who has the true bragging rights?  The Apostle Paul gave the credit where it is really due:  “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'”  (1 Corinthians 1:31 NIV).

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