I consider Thanksgiving the quintessentially American holiday, though four other nations have official, annual Thanksgiving Days: Canada, Liberia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific.
Many countries celebrate their own Independence, Veterans and Memorial Days. For Americans, from our earliest collective experience, giving thanks has been embedded in our consciousness.
Everyone knows the legend of the "first" Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Mass. in 1621. But the first documented thanksgiving celebrations on what would become U.S. soil actually took place a century earlier, as Spanish explorers celebrated their treks across an unforgiving ocean and safe landings in what we now call Florida and Texas.
Settlers routinely gave thanks as they landed on our then-pristine shores. The first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Va. held its first thanksgiving in 1610. Another English group that settled not far from Jamestown in 1619 had a charter that required that its safe landing be observed yearly as a thanksgiving day.
Our traditional image of Thanksgiving comes from the Plymouth feast, a story that began with separatists who fled the United Kingdom to escape religious oppression and persecution - tired, poor, huddled masses longing to be free. In September 1620, 102 of the group we now call the Plymouth Pilgrims headed for New England. They landed on the coast of Cape Cod 65 days later.
After a brutal winter of snow, ice, influenza and scurvy - the Pilgrims subsisted on food they stole from graves and an abandoned Wampanoag village wiped out three years earlier by smallpox from Europe - only 47 lived to see springtime in Massachusetts.
When the survivors recovered, the Wampanoag taught them how to hunt eel and grow corn. That autumn they celebrated their bumper crops, wild turkeys, venison, and the generosity of the Wampanoags with a three-day thanksgiving feast.
The colonists who formed and shaped the United States of America brought with them a religious fervor for giving thanks. They joined Native Americans who already had long traditions of grateful living in their own cultures.
Days of giving thanks peppered the Revolutionary War. George Washington established the first Thanksgiving Day in the new United States of America when he declared Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 as a day "devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."
Seventy-four years later, Abraham Lincoln established the Thanksgiving Day we celebrate today, in an effort to find common ground to end the bloodshed between the North and the South. His 1863 proclamation marveled that the United States managed to prosper in spite of the brutal Civil War, which he viewed as a terrible national sin. And he noted that in the face of carnage on the battlefield, babies were still born, crops flourished and - except within our own borders - the United States at last knew peace with the rest of the world.
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things," the proclamation stated. "They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."