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November 27, 2022

We may all be familiar with the longstanding tradition that the first Thanksgiving on American soil occurred in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation. It is a story of survival, faith, and friendship remembered and celebrated by young and old alike. But, at least four earlier accounts of Europeans holding an observance of thanksgiving on the American continent have been documented.

  • September 8, 1565, Spanish explorers and Timucua Indians celebrated a day of thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida.
  • On September 23, 1578, Martin Frobisher held a formal thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland to express gratitude for surviving the long journey in an unsuccessful attempt to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. 
  • April 30, 1598, Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans south of El Paso, Texas, held a thanksgiving observance.        
  • December 4, 1619, English settlers in the Virginia colony of Jamestown set aside a day of thanksgiving when ships arrived from England with much needed food and supplies.

While details are sparse, these occasions of European thanksgiving preceded the celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621. None of them, though, qualifies as the first Thanksgiving.

I would contend that the first Thanksgiving took place long before recorded history. Before the establishment of formal religious observances, ancient people believed that spirits caused their crops to grow. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Chinese, and Egyptians held harvest festivals, including expressions of gratitude. Throughout history, humankind has celebrated bountiful harvests with ceremonies of appreciation.

A specific provision for a thanksgiving offering among the ancient Hebrews is described in detail in the Bible in Leviticus 7. Later in Hebrew history, families also celebrated a harvest festival called Sukkoth. Taking place each autumn, Sukkoth has been observed for over 3000 years. The festival is known by two alternate names: the Feast of the Tabernacles and the Feast of Ingathering. Sukkoth is named for the booths that Moses and the Israelites lived in as they wandered the desert for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. Sukkoth begins five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish year.

In North America, Thanksgiving was celebrated long before the arrival of European colonists. Most Americans understand that the stories surrounding Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony are romanticized. Few Native Americans believe this day meant that peace and harmony had become a reality between the Indians and the Pilgrims. Most native people regard the event as the beginning of an onslaught that would reduce the number of Indians from more than one million to about 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th Century.

The day known as Thanksgiving has been accepted as a legal holiday by some Native Americans because the idea of a day to give thanks is such a vital part of their own traditions and culture. 

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor on November 27, 2002, Elizabeth Armstrong quotes Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plymouth Plantation. “There are wopila, giving thanks celebrations, all of the time among the Indian people of the Great Plains. A son or daughter returning home from war is an occasion for a wopila celebration. A wopila to celebrate a high school or college graduation is common. When someone recovers from an accident or a serious illness, a wopila ceremony is held.” 

So the idea of a day of thanksgiving has been a part of Native American cultures for centuries. The fact that it is a national holiday for all Americans blends well with Native American traditions.

Coombs continues, “We as native people traditionally have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing. Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer of acknowledgment.”

The wisdom sayings among Native Americans encourage a daily attitude of thanksgiving. A simple prayer by an author lost to memory expresses it well. “We give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way.”

In a sense, each day can be a day of thanksgiving. Greeting the sunrise at dawn, marveling at the sunset at the close of day, and innumerable other blessings can each prompt an attitude of appreciation.

The following is an Iroquois thanksgiving prayer:

We return thanks to our mother, the earth,

Which sustains us.

We return thanks to the rivers and streams,

Which supply us with water.

We return thanks to all herbs,

Which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

We return thanks to the moon and stars,

Which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

We return thanks to the sun,

That has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit,

in whom is embodied all goodness,

And who directs all things for the good of her children.

Biblical wisdom counsels a similar mindset.

“This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24 NKJV).

            “Because of the Lord’s tender mercies, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, Author’s Paraphrase).

When we adopt this attitude, every day becomes a day of thanksgiving.

As I reflect on the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving in our own family, we have so many reasons to be grateful. Far more important than material gifts are the spiritual blessings of God. Since September 2013, I have been in the hospital multiple times to the Emergency Room or for same-day surgery. I have been admitted as an inpatient for a total of twenty-nine days since March 2020. It has been a rough patch for me, for Clare, and for our family. God’s love has surrounded us through the prayers and kindnesses of so many people, including many of you. We are grateful to God and so appreciative of the thoughtfulness of many friends. Thank you!

Now at 78 years of age, I have many fond Thanksgiving memories. The Thanksgiving meal was usually the main attraction. Turkey was the centerpiece at a Neely table presided over by my grandmother or my mother. At our own table, there were some occasional exceptions. One year, we were given a pair of Canada geese dressed and oven-ready. They were delicious. At a Thanksgiving meal with my in-laws, we enjoyed Cornish game hens.

In South Carolina, it is traditional to have some variety of seafood, in addition to the birds, for our holiday meal. Oyster dressing was a favorite, as were cold-boiled shrimp. A family favorite is scallops grilled on rosemary sticks.

My earliest memory of a family Thanksgiving was not with the Neelys. It was in Elko, South Carolina, at my mother’s birthplace.

First, please, a brief introduction to my mother’s heritage. Mama was born in the house built by her great-grandfather, George Hutson. Her grandfather, Zachary Taylor Hutson, had two sons, Willie and Joe. Willie married Mollie Woodward. Mama was the youngest of five children and the only daughter born to Willie and Mollie. Mollie had an older daughter from a previous marriage.

Joe moved to Spartanburg, where he changed his name to Hudson and married Belle Haynsworth. They had six children, five boys, and one daughter.

When Mama was six weeks old, her mother died. At Mollie’s funeral, Willie handed his infant daughter across the grave. He asked, “Belle, would you please take this little girl back to Spartanburg and raise her as your own child? So, Mama was adopted by her aunt and uncle.

As the youngest child in both families, Mama was adored by all her siblings and maintained close relationships with them. She called Willie, Little Daddy, and Joe, Big Daddy.

In a short but appropriate time, Willie remarried a wonderful woman we called Miss Maude. After a few years, Willie died, and Miss Maude married Mr. Creech. Though they were no blood kin to me, they were like extra grandparents.

Going to visit Miss Maude and Creech was always a happy time. They lived in the home where Mama was born. They had a deep-water well with no running water. They had no indoor plumbing, just a privy and chamber pots under the beds. There were free-range chickens, Guinea hens, an old mule, a cow, pigs, and too many dogs and cats to count. They had an old turkey named Tom. He had an impressive fan and a long beard. He strutted the yard as if he owned the place. One Rhode Island red rooster took his turn strutting, but until he crowed, he was no match for Tom.

The house was unpainted heart pine with heart pine log underpinnings that raised the house and porch high enough for all those dogs and cats to find shelter.

Miss Maude was an excellent cook and did it all on a wood-burning stove. She made breakfast every morning for the household. Her usual fare was eggs cooked to order, country ham, cathead biscuits with redeye gravy or butter and preserves, the best grits ever, and usually sausage or side meat fried to crispy perfection.e usuall fare was her herher

The Thanksgiving I remember, Miss Maude started cooking right after breakfast.

By one o’clock, the meal was ready. After Creech said the blessing, we all took our places. Tom Turkey was still strutting in the yard. The rooster was perched on a fence post, looking puzzled. Three hens were missing. Miss Maude had fixed fried chicken for Thanksgiving. She also had ham cured by Creech, Lowcountry rice with sawmill gravy, butterbeans, sweet potatoes, and cornbread. Mama had made plenty of deviled eggs. For dessert, we had Aunt Mildred Hutson’s chocolate cake with homemade ice cream churned by Dad.

Following the meal, we gathered on the big front porch. Several broke out guitars, and one played the washtub broom handle base to perfection. Uncle Archie played his banjo, one cousin played the scrub board, and Creech played the spoons. We all sang and sang. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Peace in the Valley,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” There was no mention of football, parades, or Black Friday. We enjoyed good food, and we enjoyed being a family.

On the drive back to Spartanburg, I remember listening to Mama and Dad talking in low whispers. Mama thanked Dad for giving up Thanksgiving with his family so we could be with her Hutson family. utson HuH

“Your family is my family, too, “said Dad as he hugged Mama close to him.

As I went to sleep, I heard Dad whistling low, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

Clare joins me in wishing for all of you a Thanksgiving filled with blessings


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

This column will be included in the forthcoming book

By the Way: A Book of Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides Thanksgiving meals for those in our community who might otherwise go without food. Thank you.

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