Thanksgiving is a particularly American holiday. The word evokes images of football, family reunions, roasted turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie and, of course, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, the acknowledged founders of the feast. But was it always so? Read on to find out…
This article explores the development of our modern holiday. For information on food at the First Thanksgiving, go to Partakers of our Plenty. For additional children’s resources on Thanksgiving, you might want to view Scholastic’s Virtual Field Trip to Plimoth Plantation, explore our Online Learning Center, or visit our Homework Help page. If you’d like to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, please visit our Thanksgiving Dining and Special Events page.
Giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts had always been a part of Wampanoag daily life. From ancient times, Native People of North America have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for other good fortune such as the birth of a child. Giving thanks was, and still is, the primary reason for ceremonies or celebrations.
As with Native traditions in America, celebrations – complete with merrymaking and feasting – in England and throughout Europe after a successful crop are as ancient as the harvest-time itself. In 1621, when their labors were rewarded with a bountiful harvest after a year of sickness and scarcity, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and celebrated His bounty in the Harvest Home tradition with feasting and sport (recreation). To these people of strong Christian faith, this was not merely a revel; it was also a joyous outpouring of gratitude.
The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans brought new Thanksgiving traditions to the American scene. Today’s national Thanksgiving celebration is a blend of two traditions: the New England custom of rejoicing after a successful harvest, based on ancient English harvest festivals; and the Puritan Thanksgiving, a solemn religious observance combining prayer and feasting.
Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia each declare itself the site of the First Thanksgiving and historical documents support the various claims. Spanish explorers and other English Colonists celebrated religious services of thanksgiving years before Mayflower arrived. However, few people knew about these events until the 20th century. They were isolated celebrations, forgotten long before the establishment of the American holiday, and they played no role in the evolution of Thanksgiving. But as James W. Baker states in his book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, “despite disagreements over the details” the 3-day event in Plymouth in the fall of 1621 was “the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday.”
So how did the Pilgrims and Wampanoag come to be identified with the First Thanksgiving?
HARVEST HOME OR THANKSGIVING?
In a letter from “E.W.” (Edward Winslow) to a friend in England, he says: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” Winslow continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”
In 1622, without his approval, Winslow’s letter was printed in a pamphlet that historians commonly call Mourt’s Relation. This published description of the First Thanksgiving was lost during the Colonial period. It was rediscovered in Philadelphia around 1820. Antiquarian Alexander Young included the entire text in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). Reverend Young saw a similarity between his contemporary American Thanksgiving and the 1621 Harvest Feast. In the footnotes that accompanied Winslow’s letter, Young writes, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
The American Thanksgiving also has its origin in the faith practices of Puritan New England, where strict Calvinist doctrine sanctioned only the Sabbath, fast days and thanksgivings as religious holidays or “holy days.” To the Puritans, a true “thanksgiving” was a day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking God for His special Providence. Auspicious events, such as the sudden ending of war, drought or pestilence, might inspire a thanksgiving proclamation. It was like having an extra Sabbath during the week. Fasts and thanksgivings never fell on a Sunday. In the early 1600s, they were not annual events. Simultaneously instituted in Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Thanksgiving became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century and it was proclaimed each autumn by the individual Colonies.
The holiday changed as the dogmatic Puritans of the 17th century evolved into the 18th century’s more cosmopolitan Yankees. By the 1700s, the emotional significance of the New England family united around a dinner table overshadowed the civil and religious importance of Thanksgiving. Carried by Yankee emigrants moving westward and the popular press, New England’s holiday traditions would spread to the rest of the nation.
The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving.
Many people felt that this family holiday should be a national celebration, especially Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1827, she began a campaign to reinstate the holiday after the model of the first Presidents. She publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Sarah Josepha Hale’s efforts finally succeeded in 1863, when she was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November.
Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. In a controversial move, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lengthened the Christmas shopping season by declaring Thanksgiving for the next-to-the-last Thursday in November. Two years later, in 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month.
THE PILGRIM AND WAMPANOAG ROLE
The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were not particularly identified with Thanksgiving until about 1900, though interest in the Pilgrims as historic figures began shortly before the American Revolution.
With the publication of Longfellow’s best-selling poem The Courtship of Miles Standish (1848) and the recovery of Governor Bradford’s lost manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (1855), public interest in the Pilgrims and Wampanoag grew just as Thanksgiving became nationally important. Until the third quarter of the 19th century, music, literature and popular art concentrated on the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock and their first encounters with Native People on Cape Cod.
After 1890, representations of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag began to reflect a shift of interest to the 1621 harvest celebration. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving holiday were used to teach children about American freedom and how to be good citizens. Each November, in classrooms across the country, students participated in Thanksgiving pageants, sang songs about Thanksgiving, and built log cabins to represent the homes of the Pilgrims. Immigrant children also learned that all Americans ate turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The last lesson was especially effective with the recollections of most immigrant children in the 20th century including stories of rushing home after school in November to beg their parents to buy and roast a turkey for a holiday dinner.
TURKEY AND ALL THE TRIMMINGS
The classic Thanksgiving menu of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and root vegetables is based on New England fall harvests. In the 19th century, as the holiday spread across the country, local cooks modified the menu both by choice (“this is what we like to eat”) and by necessity (“this is what we have to eat”). Today, many Americans delight in giving regional produce, recipes and seasonings a place on the Thanksgiving table. In New Mexico, chiles and other southwestern flavors are used in stuffing, while on the Chesapeake Bay, the local favorite, crab, often shows up as a holiday appetizer or as an ingredient in dressing. In Minnesota, the turkey might be stuffed with wild rice, and in Washington State, locally grown hazelnuts are featured in stuffing and desserts. In Indiana, persimmon puddings are a favorite Thanksgiving dessert, and in Key West, key lime pie joins pumpkin pie on the holiday table. Some specialties have even become ubiquitous regional additions to local Thanksgiving menus; in Baltimore, for instance, it is common to find sauerkraut alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.
Most of these regional variations have remained largely a local phenomenon, a means of connecting with local harvests and specialty foods. However this is not true of influential southern Thanksgiving trends that had a tremendous impact on the 20th-century Thanksgiving menu.
Corn, sweet potatoes, and pork form the backbone of traditional southern home cooking, and these staple foods provided the main ingredients in southern Thanksgiving additions like ham, sweet potato casseroles, pies and puddings, and corn bread dressing. Other popular southern contributions include ambrosia (a layered fruit salad traditionally made with citrus fruits and coconut; some more recent recipes use mini-marshmallows and canned fruits), biscuits, a host of vegetable casseroles, and even macaroni and cheese. Unlike the traditional New England menu, with its mince, apple and pumpkin pie dessert course, southerners added a range and selection of desserts unknown in northern dining rooms, including regional cakes, pies, puddings, and numerous cobblers. Many of these Thanksgiving menu additions spread across the country with relocating southerners. Southern cookbooks (of which there are hundreds) and magazines also helped popularize many of these dishes in places far beyond their southern roots. Some, like sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, and corn bread dressing, have become as expected on the Thanksgiving table as turkey and cranberry sauce.
If there is one day each year when food and family take center stage, it is Thanksgiving. It is a holiday about “going home” with all the emotional content those two words imply. The Sunday following Thanksgiving is always the busiest travel day of the year in the United States. Each day of the long Thanksgiving weekend, more than 10 million people take to the skies. Another 40 million Americans drive 100 miles or more to have Thanksgiving dinner. And the nation’s railways teem with travelers going home for the holiday.
Despite modern-age turmoil—and perhaps, even more so, because of it—gathering together in grateful appreciation for a Thanksgiving celebration with friends and family is a deeply meaningful and comforting annual ritual to most Americans. The need to connect with loved ones and to express our gratitude is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time. And somewhere in the bustling activity of every November’s Thanksgiving is the abiding National memory of a moment in Plymouth, nearly 400 years ago, when two distinct cultures, on the brink of profound and irrevocable change, shared an autumn feast.
Very little is known about the 1621 event in Plymouth that is the model for our Thanksgiving. The only references to the event are reprinted below:
“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.