The “Thanksgiving” that The Pilgrims celebrated back in 1621 (almost 400 years ago) may not have been exactly what many of us believe it was, but it was probably pretty close. Let’s take a look.
The Pilgrims’ first year in this new land had been a very difficult one to say the least, and the ones who were still there were just truly thankful to be alive. They were also very thankful to the Native American people who helped them to survive in this new land, and of course they were thankful to God as well.
Almost a year earlier the first landing party had arrived at the site of what later became the settlement of Plymouth. During that first winter, the Mayflower colonists suffered greatly. 45 out of 102 immigrants died that winter. The following March, the first formal contact occurred with the Indians (or Native Americans).
(Note: All the way back to 1492, and the days of Christopher Columbus, the Native Americans here were referred to as “Indians” because Columbus believed he had landed in India, which was his real target destination at the time.)
Both sides managed to establish a formal treaty of peace. This treaty ensured that each people would not bring harm to the other, and that they would come to each other’s aid in a time of war.
By November 1621, only 53 pilgrims were alive to celebrate the harvest feast which modern Americans now know as “The First Thanksgiving.” Of the original 18 adult women, 13 died the first winter while another died in May. Only four adult women were left alive for the first Thanksgiving.
This first “Thanksgiving” was really a celebration of survival, a show of goodwill and a way for the settlers to show their appreciation to their Native American neighbors, by sharing a feast with them after their harvest, and before the onset of another winter.
When we think about “Thanksgiving,” it’s all about the food! Turkey, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot rolls, and pumpkin pie are what most of us would feel is required of a real “Thanksgiving” dinner. Different families may have certain additional items that have been added to the tradition as well. But what did the Pilgrims and their guests have to eat at that first “Thanksgiving?”
Well, the Pilgrims and their guests didn’t have corn, apples, potatoes or even cranberries. No one knows for sure if they even had turkey, although they did eat turkey from time to time. Ducks or geese would have been more plentiful this time of year. The only food we know they had for sure was deer (venison).
The feast between The Pilgrims and the Native American Wampanoag people probably also contained fish, lobster, eels, clams, turnips, berries, pumpkin, and squash.
You didn’t hear any moms or dads yelling at the kids to use their fork either. Forks weren’t even invented yet!
So where did we get the idea that you have to have turkey and cranberry sauce and such on Thanksgiving? It was because the people of the Victorian Era prepared Thanksgiving that way.
The Victorian era of history was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign over Britain from 1837 until she died in January of 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, and refined social behavior. Thanksgiving became a national holiday, beginning in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. There were actually two of them, one to celebrate Thanksgiving in August, and a second one in November. Before Lincoln, Americans outside New England did not usually celebrate the holiday.
So there you have it, and remember to say “please” before you ask someone to “pass the eels” this Thanksgiving!
Note: Thank you to Rick Shenkman, of the History News Network, for contributing to this article.
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