Greetings. Today in the United States is a special holiday, which we call "thanksgiving." It is our harvest festival, when we celebrate the bounty of our land and reflect on the good fortunes that we have had in our lives.
The origins of the holiday go all the way back to 1620, when the Plymouth Colony was founded by colonists from England, in what is today Massachusetts. We call these people the "pilgrims" because they were searching for a place that they could practice their manner of Protestant Christianity; they are also called "Puritans" because their religion had very strict codes of conduct for dress, social activities, and personal thought. They, however, would have called themselves "Dissenters" because they believed that the official religion of England, the religion known today as Anglican Christianity, had been corrupted and they were expressing the true religion.
Personally, I am not a believer at all, but I still see much to admire in the voyage of these brave people. They did not want to have their religious views cause tension and violence, they believed in hard work, and they did think of themselves as Englishmen, so they found a way to express their religion, industry, and patriotism all at once by becoming colonists in the New World. The voyage across the Atlantic took nearly two months and was filled with risk of heavy storms, bad winds, lack of food and medicine, overcrowding, bad sanitary conditions -- it does not take much imagination to understand how unpleasant it must have been for over three hundred people to be crowded together in a boat only a little larger than a modern tugboat, powered only by sail, for two months away from land.
So when they landed more or less safely in what is today Massachusetts, they were deeply relieved; they held a celebratory feast. The first Thanksgiving was probably celebrated with a meal of freshly-caught cod from the Grand Banks, local venison, and stores from the ship of sweets made with sugar and chocolate. Some contributions were made from local native Americans, from the Wampanoag tribe, contributed maize, winter vegetables, and local game. The Dissenters and the Wampanoag were friendly and established trade relations; at the feast they sang songs, danced, and taught each other their langauges.
Sadly, the example of friendship and cooperation set at the early feast was to prove the exception rather than the rule for much of American history; while history is filled with myths about relations between the European colonists and the natives, the truth is much more ambiguous on both sides but in the end the Europeans wound up in control of the land and the natives were squeezed out of the territory. And just like we U.S. Americans tell one another that the first Thanksgiving feast was repeated every year to commemorate the event, in truth the custom was not revived until after the Revolution against England.
The classic image of an American Thanksgiving feast is found in one of a series of four famous paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell, called "Freedom from Want," which I have posted to the left.
While there are variations on this, the basic idea remains the same -- Thanksgiving is a time for gathering friends and family together, and sharing a traditional meal. The classic foods eaten are roasted turkey, a bread-and-celery stuffing (sometimes with pork sausage or oysters in it), mashed potatoes with gravy made from the turkey's dripping, yams or sweet potatoes, long green beans made with onions and cream, jellied cranberries (often sweetened with oranges), and a pastry pie made from pumpkins.
Because some of these foods are not easily available in late November in all parts of the U.S.A., alternative traditions have come up. In the southeastern U.S., turkeys are less common in the wild so a ham would often be substituted for the turkey; pumpkins grow less well in the warmer climates, so a pie made from pecans would be substituted for the pumpkin pie. In the western states where I live, spicier flavors are added with hot peppers; in the northwest, salmon is sometimes used because of its abundance; in the central plains states, the stuffing for the bird is often made from corn rather than bread. And since modern families move around our country with some frequency for various economic opportunities, these different food traditions have become well -mixed, so if you're fortunate enough to be in the U.S.A. at Thanksgiving time, you may get any combination of these traditional dishes depending on the exactly mixture of traditions of the families you find yourself with.
This is a holiday which in my experience brings out the best in Americans. It highlights our love of sharing meals with friends and family. People travel more for Thanksgiving than any other time, more even than for important religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. People will reach out to their friends and invite them over for the feasts together because they take care to learn who is alone for the holidays. Should you be fortunate enough to be in the States at this time of year, it will not be difficult for you to find an invitation to a friend's home for the celebration, and you will find yourself faced with an astonishing amount of food. Come hungry, enjoy your friends with good food and shared wine, and give thanks for the good things in your life.
Of course, no one should need an excuse to do these things because they are good any time -- but it's a great tradition to have the whole country stop, take a day off work, and celebrate.