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The History of Thanksgiving


Cornucopia—Original Art by Patricia J. Martin © 2008

 An article by Lillian Norman

When Americans think about Thanksgiving, we usually think about Pilgrims, turkeys, the Mayflower, and a shared feast with the Native Americans. Many of us also think of large family gatherings, a huge supper, and football watched through a tryptophan-induced haze. As Pagans, we think about thanksgiving in many different ways. There is, of course, the traditional American Thanksgiving, but there are other traditions of thanksgiving as well. Most are related to a harvest or a turning of a season, a thank you to Mother Earth for her bounty. It is a human tradition, regardless of race, religion or culture, to give thanks. Welcome to a celebration of Human Tradition, and the glue that binds it, Thanksgiving. 

Way back in the 1600’s the Church of England was having problems. The Church of England wanted to stay as it was, its own entity with many lingering remnants of Catholicism still incorporated within the liturgy. There were two factions, the Separatists and the Puritans. The Puritans thought that the church was salvageable and still wanted to work with it to blend their beliefs with the Church’s, to ‘purify’ it. The Separatists, however, didn’t believe anything was salvageable and wanted to split off into their own church. Unfortunately, back in that day, it was treason to do so. The Separatists pushed their agenda and the Crown pushed back. Queen Mary, also known as “Bloody Mary,” wanted England to return to Catholicism and persecuted the Puritans and Separatists severely. Queen Elizabeth strove to unify England and tried to be accepting of the different religious views, but she liked her church just the way it was and although she did not actively seek out the dissenters, she did nothing to change the laws. 

The persecution fed the fires of righteous indignation and martyrdom. The Separatists had no option but to leave. They went to Holland for several years where they enjoyed their religious freedom. Then the new world became an option in a commercial venture. These Separatists did what they needed to do. They commissioned two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell ended up being a leaky ship and did not make the journey. After setting sail, both ships turned back to England where they left the Speedwell behind. All the people crammed into the Mayflower and they came to the shores of North America late in the fall of 1620. The 66-day journey was fraught with storms. They ended up landing way north of where they were aiming. Their settlement was supposed to be in Northern Virginia. 

They arrived at Cape Cod in November to find they were totally alone. They did what they had to do to survive, but by the time spring arrived, only half of the Pilgrims had survived the harsh winter. It looked like the new settlement may be doomed. 

It was in March of the New Year that they met the Native Americans. Samoset, a member of the Abenaki tribe from Maine, had learned to speak a bit of English from British fishermen. He walked into the camp and welcomed the Pilgrims in their own language. Later he introduced them to Massasoit, chief of one of the local Wampanoag tribes. It was with Massasoit a treaty was struck and for as long as he lived, the Native Americans and settlers lived in peace. 

The Native Americans taught the settlers how to fish, plant corn and hunt game. In the fall, when the harvest was brought in, the settlers and the Native Americans held a three-day feast to give thanks to their respective gods for their bounty. By English accounts, they gave thanks “according to English custom,” a custom handed down over the ages from ancient Pagans. By Wampanoag accounts, the feast was one of four thanksgiving celebrations held by that tribe over the course of a year, each coinciding with the changing of seasons or a harvest. 

The Wampanoag people have lived in southern New England since the glaciers began to recede northward, at least 10,000 years. Wampanoag means, “Eastern People,” or “People of the first light,” because they live so far east and see the sunrise before those who live more inland. By the time settlers came, they were fishermen, hunters, and planters. They grew the crops known as The Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash. Every day was a day of thanksgiving for them. 

Although every day was a day of thanksgiving, the Wampanoag honoured four major Thanksgiving celebrations. One was late in winter, a thanksgiving for the maple trees that give up their sweet sap to make syrup and sugar. 

Summer is celebrated with Strawberry Thanksgiving when the first wild berry ripens. This is a favourite. Legend has it that there were two children, orphans who lived with their grandmother. They were very close to each other and were constant companions. One day, though, they argued. The boy stormed off to the west, in the direction of the sun, and the girl went east. 

After a time, they both began to feel bad and asked the Great Spirit for forgiveness and a way back to each other. The little girl asked for something to take back with her to show her brother that she was sorry. She looked down, and there amidst the straw and grasses were red berries. She filled her basket with them and brought them to her brother. They ate them in peace together. 

Thus the thanksgiving of the strawberries is also about being thankful for forgiveness and peace. As the celebration is held today, no one comes to the party with a grudge against another. The strawberry is a symbol of a peace offering.  

The Green Bean and Green Corn harvests come at midsummer. When the people found that they could eat the beans green as well as ripe, they found another reason to thank the Great Spirit. At this time shellfish were a main staple of the diet so a clambake with shellfish and green beans became the tradition. 

The last thanksgiving celebrated by the people coincided with the traditional Thanksgiving we know today. It’s the only one the Wampanoag told the settlers about. For them it was a celebration of their harvest, the fields, woods and meadows. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the Chinese were celebrating Autumn Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival. It is one of two important festivals on the Chinese calendar, the other being the Chinese New Year. Autumn Moon festival goes back over 3,000 years and is a celebration of the harvest, abundance and togetherness. 

Mid -Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month on the Chinese calendar, which coincides with the autumn equinox on the solar calendar. Traditional activities for this festival are eating moon cakes in the moonlight, carrying brightly lit lanterns, a dragon dance, and lighting incense to the moon goddess, Chang’e.

In Israel, the Sukkoth, an autumn festival of thanksgiving has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. In Korea, Chuseok is celebrated on the same day as the Autumn Moon Festival. This is when Koreans return to their ancestral homes and pay respect to their ancestors who provide rice and fruits. They visit ancestral tombs and offer food and drink to their ancestors. 

The list of Thanksgiving traditions goes on and on. As human beings, we give thanks to Mother Earth, the Great Spirit, the God of Abraham, Allah, Buddha, the Goddess.... one does not have to be American to celebrate it. One does not have to be Pagan. One just needs to be a human being with a heart full of gratitude.

© 2008 Lillian Norman 

Lillian Norman lives in northeast Ohio and is a solitary pagan witch. She has been a member of EW since 2005. 

First published in the Mabon/Autumn Equinox 2008 newsletter "The Controversial Cauldron" produced by the Yahoo group "Email Witches." A copy of which can be downloaded free from my website below.

Best wishes and Blessed Be


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Correspondence Tables:


IncenseCandlesColours Magickal Days Stones and Gems Elements and Elementals




Traditions Part 1  -  Alexandrian Wicca /  Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) /  Ár Ndraíocht Féin (ADF) /  Blue Star Wicca /  British Traditional (Druidic Witchcraft) /  Celtic Wicca /  Ceremonial Magic /  Chaos Magic /  Church and School of Wicca /  Circle Sanctuary /  Covenant of the Goddess (COG) /  Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) /  Cyber Wicca /  Dianic Wicca /  Eclectic Wicca /  Feri Wicca /


Traditions Part 2 Gardnerian Wicca /  Georgian Tradition /  Henge of Keltria /  Hereditary Witchcraft /  Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (H.O.G.D.) /  Kitchen Witch (Hedge Witch) /  Minoan Brotherhood and Minoan Sisterhood Tradition /  Nordic Paganism /  Pagan Federation /  Pectic-Wita /  Seax-Wica /  Shamanism /  Solitary /  Strega /  Sylvan Tradition /  Vodoun or Voodoo /  Witches League of Public Awareness (WLPA) /


Other things of interest:


Gods and Goddesses (Greek Mythology) /  Esbats & Full Moons Links to Personal Friends & Resources Wicca/Witchcraft Resources What's a spell? Circle Casting and Sacred Space  Pentagram - Pentacle Marks of a Witch The Witches Power The Witches Hat An esoteric guide to visiting London SatanismPow-wowThe Unitarian Universalist Association /  Numerology:  Part 1  Part 2  /  Part 3A history of the Malleus Maleficarum:  includes:  Pope Innocent VIII  /  The papal Bull  /   The Malleus Maleficarum  /  An extract from the Malleus Maleficarum  /  The letter of approbation  /  Johann Nider’s Formicarius  /  Jacob Sprenger  /  Heinrich Kramer  /  Stefano Infessura  /  Montague Summers  /  The Waldenses  /  The Albigenses  /  The Hussites /  The Native American Sun DanceShielding (Occult and Psychic Protection)  The History of ThanksgivingAuras  - Part 1 and Part 2 Doreen Valiente Witch” (A Book Review) /   


Sabbats and Festivals:


The Sabbats in History and Mythology /  Samhain (October 31st)  /  Yule (December 21st)  /  Imbolc (February 2nd)  /  Ostara (March 21st)  /  Beltane (April 30th)  /  Litha (June 21st)  /  Lammas/Lughnasadh (August 1st)  /  Mabon (September 21st)


Rituals contributed by Crone:


Samhain / Yule Imbolc Ostara /  Beltane Litha Lammas Mabon




Tools of a Witch  /  The Besom (Broom) /  Poppets and DollsPendulums / Cauldron Magick Mirror Gazing




Animals in Witchcraft (The Witches Familiar and Totem Animals) /  AntelopeBatsCrow Fox Frog and Toads Goat / HoneybeeKangarooLion OwlPhoenix Rabbits and HaresRaven Robin RedbreastSheep Spider SquirrelSwansUnicornWild Boar Wolf /  Serpent /  Pig /  Stag /  Horse /  Mouse /  Cat /  Rats /  Unicorn




In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar.  For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following:  Birch /  Rowan / Ash /  Alder /  Willow Hawthorn /  Oak /  Holly /  Hazel /  Vine /  Ivy /  Reed /  Elder


Sacred Sites:


Mystical Sacred Sites  -  Stonehenge /  Glastonbury Tor /  Malta - The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni /  Avebury /  Cerne Abbas - The Chalk Giant /  Ireland - Newgrange /


Rocks and Stones:


Stones - History, Myths and Lore


Articles contributed by Patricia Jean Martin:


Apophyllite  / Amber Amethyst Aquamarine Aragonite Aventurine Black Tourmaline Bloodstone Calcite Carnelian Celestite Citrine Chrysanthemum StoneDiamond  /  Emerald / Fluorite Garnet /  Hematite Herkimer Diamond Labradorite Lapis Lazuli Malachite Moonstone Obsidian Opal Pyrite Quartz (Rock Crystal) Rose Quartz Ruby Selenite Seraphinite  /  Silver and GoldSmoky QuartzSodalite Sunstone ThundereggTree AgateZebra Marble


Wisdom and Inspiration:


Knowledge vs Wisdom by Ardriana Cahill I Talk to the TreesAwakening The Witch in YouA Tale of the Woods I have a Dream by Martin Luther King /


Articles and Stories about Witchcraft:


Murdered by Witchcraft The Fairy Witch of Clonmel A Battleship, U-boat, and a Witch The Troll-Tear (A story for Children) /  Goody Hawkins - The Wise Goodwife /  The Story of Jack-O-Lantern The Murder of the Hammersmith Ghost Josephine Gray (The Infamous Black Widow) /  The Two Brothers - Light and Dark


Old Masters of Academia:


Pliny the ElderHesiodPythagoras





A "Who's Who" of Witches, Pagans and other associated People

(Ancient, Past and Present)


Remembered at Samhain

(Departed Pagan Pioneers, Founders, Elders and Others)


Pagan Pioneers:  Founders, Elders, Leaders and Others


Abramelin the Mage /  Agrippa Aidan A KellyAlbertus Magnus - “Albert the Great” Aleister Crowley - “The Great Beast” /  Alex Sanders - “King of the Witches” /  Alison Harlow /   Allan Bennett - the Ven. Ananda MetteyyaAllan Kardec (Spiritism) /  Alphonsus de SpinaAmber KAnn Moura /  Anna FranklinAnodea JudithAnton Szandor LaVey /  Arnold CrowtherArthur Edward Waite /  Austin Osman SpareBalthasar Bekker /  Biddy EarlyBarbara Vickers /  Bridget Cleary - The Fairy Witch of Clonmel /  Carl " Llewellyn" Weschcke Cecil Hugh WilliamsonCharles Godfrey Leland /   Charles WaltonChristopher PenczakChristina Oakley Harrington Cornelius Loos /  Damh the Bard - "Dave Smith" /  Dion Fortune /  Dolores Aschroft-NowickiDonald Michael Kraig Doreen ValienteDorothy MorrisonDr. John Dee & Edward Kelly /  Dr. Leo Louis Martello /  Edain McCoy /  Edward FitchEleanor Ray Bone - “Matriarch of British Witchcraft” Eliphas Levi /  Ernest Thompson Seton /  Ernest Westlake /  Fiona Horne /   Frederick McLaren Adams - Feraferia Friedrich von Spee /  Francis Barrett /  Gavin and Yvonne Frost and the School and Church of Wicca /  Gerald B. Gardner - The father of contemporary Witchcraft /  Gwydion Pendderwen Hans HolzerHelen Duncan /   Herman Slater - Horrible Herman /  Heinrich KramerIsaac Bonewits Israel RegardieIvo Domínguez Jr. /  Jack Whiteside Parsons - Rocket Science and Magick /  James "Cunning" Murrell - The Master of Witches /  Janet Farrar and Gavin BoneJean Bodin Jessie Wicker Bell - “Lady Sheba” / Johann Weyer  / Johannes Junius - "The Burgomaster of Bamberg" /   Johann Georg Fuchs von Dornheim  -  the “Hexenbrenner” (witch burner) /  John Belham-Payne John George Hohman - "Pow-wow" /  John Gerard /  John Gordon Hargrave and the Kibbo Kith Kindred /  John Michael Greer /  John Score /  Joseph “Bearwalker” Wilson /  Joseph John Campbell /  Karl von Eckartshausen Lady Gwen Thompson - and "The Rede of the Wiccae" /   Laurie Cabot  - "the Official Witch of Salem" /  Lewis SpenceLodovico Maria Sinistrari Ludwig LavaterMadeline Montalban and the Order of the Morning Star /  Margaret Alice MurrayMargot AdlerMichael Howard and the UK "Cauldron Magazine" /  Margaret St. Clair - the “Sign of the Labrys” /  Marie Laveau - " the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" /  Marion WeinsteinMartin Antoine Del Rio Matthew Hopkins - “The Witch-Finder General” /   Max Ehrmann and the "Desiderata" /  Michael A. Aquino - and The Temple of Set /  Monique WilsonMontague Summers /  Nicholas CulpeperNicholas RemyM. R. SellarsMrs. Maud Grieve - "A Modern Herbal" /  Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning GloryOld Dorothy Clutterbuck /  Old George PickingillOlivia Durdin-Robertson - co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis /  Paddy SladePamela Colman-SmithParacelsus /  Patricia CrowtherPatricia Monaghan /  Patricia “Trish” TelescoPaul Foster Case and the “Builders of the Adytum” mystery school /  Peter Binsfeld /  Philip HeseltonRaven GrimassiRaymond Buckland /  Reginald Scot /  Richard BaxterRobert CochraneRobert ‘von Ranke’ Graves and the "The White Goddess" /  Rosaleen Norton - “The Witch of Kings Cross” /  Rossell Hope Robbins /   Ross Nichols and the " Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids" (OBOD) /  Rudolf SteinerSabrina Underwood - "The Ink Witch" /  Scott CunninghamSelena Fox - founder of "Circle Sanctuary" /  Silver RavenwolfSir Francis Dashwood /  Sir James George Frazer and the " The Golden Bough"S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” /  Starhawk /  Stewart Farrar /  Sybil LeekTed Andrews The Mather Family - (includes:  Richard Mather, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather ) /   Thomas AdyT. Thorn CoyleVera ChapmanVictor & Cora Anderson and the " Feri Tradition" /  Vivianne CrowleyWalter Brown GibsonWalter Ernest ButlerWilliam Butler YeatsZsuzsanna Budapest /  



Many of the above biographies are briefs and far from complete.  If you know about any of these individuals and can help with additional information, please contact me privately at my email address below.  Many thanks for reading  :-)



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