They had survived their first raw winter in the new land--a harrowing time of scarce food, hard work and sickness that killed nearly half of the tiny band of 102 Pilgrims who had settled in Plymouth, Mass.
And so they gathered in the autumn of 1621, having been befriended by their Indian neighbors and blessed by a bountiful harvest, to rejoice and give thanks, as was their custom, with a harvest festival.
Three-hundred sixty-four years later, the spirit of that first New England Thanksgiving lives on.
It's a theme with few variations: An annual reunion of family and friends, a festive occasion permeated with the tastes and smells of good things to eat.
But, as years go by, it is the memories of past Thanksgivings and the people we shared them with that help give special meaning to the annual rite of fall.
To find out what significance the national holiday has played in their lives, prominent Orange County residents were asked to share their thoughts on Thanksgivings past and present.
It was Nov. 25, 1954, and Dr. Stanley van den Noort was filled with conflicting emotions.
His wife, June, had just given birth to a daughter, the first of five children the Tustin couple would have. And van den Noort, who this year ended 12 years as dean of UC Irvine's College of Medicine, was elated.
But on that Thanksgiving Day 31 years ago, he had been called to work at Boston City Hospital, where he was an intern. And in the midst of his joy, the new father had had to tell three separate families that one of their loved ones had died.
The experience was intense for van den Noort because to him Thanksgiving means family. "I grew up in Massachusetts, not too far from where the Pilgrims landed. It was always an important holiday there. I had it imbued in me at an early age that
Thanksgiving is something to be revered," he said.
Now he likes Thanksgiving because "it's not surrounded by as much commercial trappings as some of the other holidays."
This year, he and his wife will celebrate the day in Santa Barbara at the home of another daughter. They will be joined by about a dozen relatives, and van den Noort hopes that they will include all his children, two of whom live in Boston, two in Orange County, and his "four and a half" grandchildren.
Van den Noort, who helped raise the medical school's
ranking to the top 15% in the nation, is now professor of neurology at UCI's College of Medicine. Considering that he has also resumed private practice, he also hopes that he will be able to celebrate this Thanksgiving without being called out to a hospital.