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.
\f7 Merritt Johnson, president of United Way of Orange County, said his most memorable Thanksgiving followed the return of his son Chris in 1979 from a year in Germany on the American Field Service program.
"My wife and I had no idea what it would be like to have a son and not be able to see him for one whole year," Johnson recalled. "At the time Chris left he was 17 years old; he celebrated his 18th birthday in Germany. When he came back, he went up to college immediately.
"Thanksgiving was the very first holiday, and it became a very special thing. And I'd say it was particularly special for my wife Jeanne, having her first-born child leave the nest and be gone. . . .
"Just prior to that Thanksgiving, I began to sense just how difficult it had been for her. I sensed her life was changing, and I made a point of spending more time with her. I tried to work out my schedule so I could call her up late in the afternoon and say: 'Hey, meet me down in Laguna Beach, we'll have a drink at the Beach House. . . .'
"Then getting Chris back for Thanksgiving dinner, and feeling that the family was back together again, well, it was kind of like a corny old 1940s movie. Here we were, a family again."