It is one of America's most popular holidays. It is a day for expressing thanks for the good things in life, especially family and friends. I'm Shirley Griffith. and I'm Sarah Long. The story of Thanksgiving is our report today on the VOA special English program, This is America.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving day. The writer O. Henry called it the one day that is purely American. Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. But it has spiritual meaning. Some Americans attend church ceremonies on Thanksgiving morning. Others travel long distances to be with their families. They have a large dinner, which is the main part of the celebration.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is the only time of year when all members of a family gather together. So, the holiday is considered a time of family reunion. About thirty-million Americans are expected to travel this week to be with their families. It is the busiest travel time of the year in the United States.

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is a celebration of family and home. Here is part of a traditional Thanksgiving song. It is called "Bless This House." It is sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

On Thanksgiving, family and friends enjoy a long day of cooking, eating, and talking. The Thanksgiving meal almost always includes turkey meat with a bread mixture cooked inside. Other traditional foods are sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Stores sell more food at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year. And many people eat more food on Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year.

Thanksgiving is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November. The month of November is autumn in the United States. Autumn is the season when crops are gathered. When the first European settlers in America gathered their crops, they celebrated. They thanked their God for the success of the harvest.

Tradition says the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in sixteen-twenty-one by Pilgrim settlers from England. There is evidence that settlers in other parts of America held earlier Thanksgiving celebrations. But the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving story is the most popular.

The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who fled oppression in England. They went first to the Netherlands. Then they left that country to establish a colony in north America. The Pilgrims landed in sixteen-twenty in what later became known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was difficult. Their first months in America were difficult, too. About one-hundred Pilgrims landed just as autumn was turning to winter. During the cold months that followed, about half of them died.

When spring came, the Pilgrims began planting crops. A native American Indian named Squanto helped them. When summer ended, the Pilgrims had a good harvest of corn and barley. Some vegetables had grown poorly. yet there was enough food to last through the winter.

The Pilgrims decided to hold a celebration to give thanks for their harvest. Writings from that time say that Pilgrim leader William Bradford set a date late in the year. He invited members of a nearby Indian tribe to take part.

That Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days. There were many kinds of foods to eat. The meal included wild birds such as ducks, geese, and -- possibly -- turkeys.

The Pilgrims did not hold another Thanksgiving celebration until two years later. The celebration marked the end of a period of dry weather that had almost destroyed their crops. Historians believe that the Pilgrims's second Thanksgiving was held in july.

The Pilgrims did not plan to establish a yearly Thanksgiving holiday. but as the American colonies grew, Thanksgiving -- or harvest -- celebrations were held in many towns and settlements. They were held on many different days. It was not until about two-hundred-fifty years later that a national day for Thanksgiving was declared.

The declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday resulted from the efforts of one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale. She began her campaign in the eighteen-twenties. Missus Hale was a writer. She wrote stories about a national day of Thanksgiving in a publication for women. She also wrote many letters to Presidents and other public officials. She urged them to support the idea. Support grew slowly. Finally, in eighteen-sixty-three, President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday of Thanksgiving.

At that time, the United States was fighting a civil war. President Lincoln liked the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday that would also celebrate national unity. Since then, the United States has always celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.

American writer Diana Karter Appelbaum wrote a book about Thanksgiving. She said Thanksgiving became important partly because the United States was a new nation. She said the United States needed traditions that would help hold the new nation together.

Over the years, some new traditions were added to America's Thanksgiving celebration. For example, a number of professional and university football games are played on Thanksgiving Day. Some of the games are broadcast on national television.

Several Thanksgiving Day parades are broadcast on television, too. These parades are organized by big stores in several American cities. The parade organized by the Macy's store in New York is the biggest.

Giant balloons twenty meters high float above the street. The balloons are in the shape of creatures from popular cartoons and television programs. People on the ground hold heavy ropes so the balloons do not fly away.

Thanksgiving also is a time when Americans share what they have with those who do not have much. Churches and other groups provide free Thanksgiving meals for old people, the homeless, and the poor. Many Americans give turkeys or other food to these groups. Some spend part of the day helping to prepare and serve the meals.

Religious ceremonies are an important part of Thanksgiving Day for many Americans. People join in prayers and songs of Thanksgiving. One of the most famous songs is called "Prayer of Thanksgiving."

The words and music tell of the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving. We gather with our family. We share what we have, and we give thanks for the good things of the past year. Here is the Boston Pops Orchestra and Chorus singing "Prayer of Thanksgiving."

This program was written by Carolyn Weaver. It was produced by Caty Weaver. Our engineer was Holly Capehart. I'm Sarah Long, and I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, This Is America.