PLYMOUTH, Mass., Nov. 15 (UPI) -- On Cole's Hill overlooking the peaceful harbor of Plymouth, Mass., a larger-than-life-size statue of Massasoit stares east over the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps to a distant England where the religious dissidents, who changed life for his people forever, originated nearly four centuries ago.
Massasoit was the Wampanoag Indian chief -- or sachem -- who in 1620 befriended those dissidents when their future seemed bleak because many were dying as they tried to establish a new life in a foreign land.
American history refers to those dissidents as "The Pilgrims."
In 1621, they and their local native neighbors took part in a harvest ceremony, the "First Thanksgiving" on which the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday is based.
A few steps from the Massasoit statue is a tomb that contains bones of some of those Pilgrims who died during the first harsh winter of the Plymouth colony.
Tied up at a dock on the waterfront below the hill, not far away, is a full-size replica of the vessel that brought the Pilgrims to the "New World," the Mayflower II.
A short walk from there through a grassy park takes visitors to Plymouth Rock, the symbolic landing point for the Pilgrims.
Because of this history, Plymouth proudly proclaims itself as "America's Hometown."
There are many myths and misconceptions about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. But what is certain is that the Thanksgiving holiday season is the most important time of the year for the picturesque seaside community.
Plymouth is an American icon, and as such a potential target for anyone wanting to attack the nation's patriotic symbols.
For that reason, and as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Thanksgiving in Plymouth this year has taken on a special significance.
"We've looked at it as the whole nation all of a sudden will be looking at Thanksgiving differently this year, perhaps more special and more significant an event than it's been in many of our lifetimes until now," Tom O'Rourke, president of the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, told United Press International.
O'Rourke said there was a big dip in hotel reservations immediately after Sept. 11, "but what is surprising is that they have come back, and most of the hotels are reporting very strong numbers for the Thanksgiving period."
Is Plymouth jittery about possibly being singled out by terrorists because of its special place in American history?
"I don't think we're jittery, but we are cautious," O'Rourke said. "We've done everything we can to secure the area, just like everyone else in the country. It's sort of go on with your life but keep your eyes open."
Plymouth this year is inviting America home for Thanksgiving. The entire community, including Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum of 17th century Plymouth, will host a series of programs and events on Saturday, Nov. 17, to share the story of surviving hardship by resolve, perseverance, hope, and a little help from their Indian friends.
"This is the year that we want to celebrate Thanksgiving in a little more meaningful form, and Plymouth of course is America's hometown where it all began, so the people, the folk, the selectmen, the tourism councils in Plymouth decided that this would be a wonderful opportunity to bring people in together and to give thanks in America's hometown" on Saturday, Mary Jane McKenna, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, told UPI.
"This is the first Thanksgiving since Sept. 11, and I think we all want to become a little more involved in giving thanks for all the wonderful things this country offers us," McKenna said. "Plymouth is inviting everybody home for Thanksgiving, and we're looking forward to having as many people as possible come into the town and enjoy all the festivities that will be taking place."
Plimoth Plantation, just a little over 2 miles from downtown Plymouth, is hosting a number of special events, including programs on 17th century games, how to "Eat like a Pilgrim," and a 1620 English Tavern Dinner.
A program of "Shipboard Tales" will be presented aboard the Mayflower II.
Saturday's program will culminate with a candlelight vigil, "One Small Candle, Giving Thanks," at Plymouth Rock in Pilgrim Memorial State Park.
The special program sends a "message of hope" and stems from "a recognition that Plymouth has a responsibility, not only to the local community, but really to the country, to help communicate and educate the population on the story of Thanksgiving," said Patrick Apel, executive director of the Plymouth County Development Council.
Noting this is the 380th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, Apel said organizers felt that Plymouth, "in its unique place in history and in these particular times, this year's Thanksgiving is probably more important to all of us than any in recent memory."
It is, he said, to "remind people that Thanksgiving in this country was founded on hardship and uncertainty, but through dedication and hope and faith we persevere. This year in our history as a country people are going to reflect and obviously give special thanks for what we all have, the freedoms we enjoy."
In a historical note, those "Pilgrims" who celebrated that first Thanksgiving in America didn't at first call themselves Pilgrims.
Fleeing religious prosecution in their native England, 44 people who called themselves "Saints" sailed from Plymouth, England, in 1620 on the Mayflower. Also on board were 66 others, whom the Saints called the "Strangers."
There were many disagreements between the two groups on the 65-day voyage, but after land was sighted an agreement called the Mayflower Compact was worked out, guaranteeing equality. The two groups had joined together and came to refer to themselves as "Pilgrims."
The first winter was devastating to the Pilgrims as they attempted to establish their settlement in the cold, sleet and snow. Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, fewer than 50 survived the winter.
However, spring finally arrived and their situation improved over the summer. After a successful harvest that October, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all, including neighboring American Indians.
Sachem Massasoit and 90 Indians came to join in the celebration, which lasted for three days.
The custom of celebrating thanksgiving after harvest continued through the years, but it did not become a national holiday until declared so by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
More information is available at the Web sites, visit-plymouth.com; plimoth.org; holidays.net/thanksgiving/pilgrims; and massvacation.com.