Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. Nearly four centuries have passed since that first celebration in 1621, when, as Edward Winslow wrote in a letter to a friend back in England, the settlers of Plymouth Colony paused to “rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors” and “for three days . . . entertained and feasted” with 90 of their Wampanoag neighbors. What Thanksgiving was at the outset — part joyful harvest festival, part expression of prayerful gratitude, part occasion for games and reunions — it remains recognizably to this day.
The story of that first Thanksgiving is also a story of immigrants, whose journey to the New World prefigured tens of millions of immigrant stories that followed. There is irony in the fact that Thanksgiving today is so bound up with “going home,” as the crowded highways and packed airports of the long holiday weekend attest. For the Pilgrims “going home” wasn’t an option. When they left Europe the year before, they left for good. As they parted from friends and familiar surroundings, recalled Plymouth’s governor William Bradford, “what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye.”