Thanksgiving is a major holiday celebrated in the United States, with origins dating back centuries to Colonial times.
The faith of celebrating a harvest of plenty was a dramatic event in early Colonial America, since food supplies were far from dependable. Years of massive starvation were as common as times of plenty.
Although Native Americans were known to have harvest celebrations for centuries, if not millennia, before arrival of Europeans, the quintessence of Thanksgiving in all regions was a joint celebration of colonists and indigenous peoples, sharing the bounty of autumn and their common survival.
The site and date of origin of Thanksgiving are matters of great dispute, with regional claims being made by widely disparate locations in North America. The chief claims are: Saint Augustine, Florida – 1565; Baffin Island, Canada – 1578; Jamestown, Virginia – 1619 and Plymouth, Massachusetts – 1621.
In Hawaiʻi, the Makahiki is a form of the “first fruits” festivals common to many cultures throughout the world. It is similar in timing and purpose to Thanksgiving, Oktoberfest and other harvest celebrations.
Something similar was observed throughout Polynesia, but it was in pre-contact Hawaiʻi that the festival reached its greatest elaboration.
Makahiki was celebrated during a designated period of time following the harvesting season. As the year’s harvest was gathered, tributes in the form of goods and produce were given to the chiefs from November through December.
Various rites of purification and celebration in December and January closed the observance of the Makahiki season. During the special holiday the success of the harvest was commemorated with prayers of praise made to the Creator, ancestral guardians, caretakers of the elements and various deities – particularly Lono.
No one knows when the first western Thanksgiving feast was held in Hawaiʻi, but from all apparent possibilities, the first recorded one took place in Honolulu and was held among the families of the American missionaries from New England.
According to the reported entry in Lowell Smith’s journal on December 6, 1838: “This day has been observed by us missionaries and people of Honolulu as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God. Something new for this nation. The people turned out pretty well and they dined in small groups and in a few instances in large groups. We missionaries all dined at Dr. Judd’s and supped at Brother Bingham’s. … An interesting day; seemed like old times – Thanksgiving in the United States.”
The first Thanksgiving Proclamation in Hawaiʻi appears to have been issued on November 23, 1849, and set the 31st day of December as a date of Thanksgiving. This appeared in ‘The Friend’ on December 1, 1849.
The following, under the signature of King Kamehameha III, named a day in December as a day of public thanks. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1849 read, in part:
“In accordance with the laws of this Kingdom, and the excellent usage of Christian Nations, it has pleased his Majesty, in council, to appoint the Thirty-first day of December, next, as a day of public thanksgiving to God, for His unnumbered mercies and blessings to this nation; and people of every class are respectfully requested to assemble in their several houses of worship on that day, to render united praise to the Father of nations, and to implore His favor in time to come, upon all who dwell upon these shores, as individuals, as families, and as a nation.” (Signed at the Palace. Honolulu, November, 23, 1849.)
“It will be seen by Royal Proclamation that Monday, the 31st of December has been appointed by His Majesty in Council as a day of Thanksgiving. We are glad to see this time-honored custom introduced into this Kingdom.”
The celebratory day of Thanksgiving changed over time. On December 26, 1941 President Roosevelt signed into law a bill making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law, fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.
The image is a drawing, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie A. Brownscombe.