As families gather across the country to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, where will this traditional American holiday find you? Will you gather with extended family to enjoy a delicious meal of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie? Will you watch the Detroit Lions go up against the Chicago Bears with hopes of a Turkey Day victory? Or will you be in line at your favorite store, hoping to cash in on early deals on holiday gifts?

Regardless of your celebration of choice, your Thanksgiving will look very different from how the holiday was celebrated centuries ago.

The first Thanksgiving

It may surprise you to learn that the “first Thanksgiving” is a debated term when discussing the three-day feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth. Isolated celebrations of thanksgiving by Spanish explorers and other English colonists occurred long before the Pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, arrived in the New World. In addition, Native people of North America have held ceremonies of thanks for successful harvests since ancient times.

Despite these examples, however, the feast that occurred in Plymouth in the fall of 1621 is considered the historical source of Thanksgiving celebrations today.

The corn harvest of 1621 was bountiful and was welcomed as a great relief to the Pilgrims, who had endured a year of scarce food and rampant sickness. They decided to celebrate with a multi-day feast and games to give thanks to God for their good fortune. The 50 Pilgrims were joined in this celebration by about 90 Wampanoag.

The food served at the first Thanksgiving was likely very different from today’s Thanksgiving fare. Although historians do not know exactly what foods the Pilgrims and Wampanoag shared, we know from historical accounts that there was a variety of food available.

A witness to the first Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow, wrote a letter home to England describing the bounty of sea creatures available to the Pilgrims: “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels ... at our doors.”

Winslow went on to describe fruits available, writing, “Here are grapes, white and (red), and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts ...”

In the fall around the time of the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrim gardens would have produced a variety of what they called “herbs,” which included: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Locally, they may also have been able to find cranberries, pumpkins and nuts, and they may have dried beans and blueberries gathered in the summer to enjoy during the fall.

Finally, Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving mentions that four men went hunting and returned with large amounts of fowl for the feast. Although he did not specify what type of fowl they enjoyed, we can guess from other historical accounts that it was likely duck, goose, swan or wild turkey. For the preparation of these birds, both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims were known to make a stuffing of “herbs” and onions. In addition to the fowl, the Wampanoag presented venison as a gift to the Pilgrim leaders, including Gov. William Bradford and Capt. Myles Standish.

Becoming a national holiday

The term “thanksgiving” comes from the Puritans, who celebrated major events such as the end of a war, drought or other catastrophe with a formal day of prayer. Thanksgiving celebrations were not annual events originally, but by the mid-1600s colonists in Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts were observing a Thanksgiving each autumn.

By the 1700s, a greater emphasis on family began to be placed on Thanksgiving and celebrations spread as the American colonies developed. In the midst of the American Revolution in 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving. Meant to be observed as a “solemn occasion,” the Congress recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming” on Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, Edward Winslow’s letter detailing the first Thanksgiving had been published in England, was lost in the 1700s and rediscovered around 1820, and was ultimately shared in its entirety in 1841’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers” by Alexander Young. The publication of this book came at a time of renewed interest in the Pilgrim story.

By the 1850s, almost every state celebrated Thanksgiving, but it was not considered a federal holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. The holiday was not an annual event, however, and the sitting president had to proclaim a date for Thanksgiving each year. In 1941, Congress permanently established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving celebrations today

Although today’s Thanksgiving celebrations have retained an emphasis on giving thanks for what we have, many of the elements of the first Thanksgiving have changed. Holiday menus have become more complex, with every family enjoying their own traditions and their own favorite Thanksgiving dishes (one of my personal favorites is the oft-maligned green bean casserole). Annual football games have replaced the games the Pilgrims played, and a new emphasis on holiday shopping has added a controversial new element to the day.

At its core, however, Thanksgiving remains a day to give thanks for family and friends, and to spend time together.

About the writer: Connie Locker VerHulst is the development and membership manager for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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