(Host) It’s Thanksgiving and Tom Slayton is here tell us the story about the origin of today’s National Holiday.
(Slayton) Ah, Thanksgiving, that traditional American holiday when we commemorate the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving by eating: turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, squash and, of course, pumpkin pie!
The first Thanksgiving feast, most of us learned in school, was an occasion the Pilgrims set aside in late November for giving thanks to the Almighty for having survived their first year in a new land. Tradition tells us that the Pilgrims invited their Indian neighbors to share their bounty, thus cementing their friendship.
Alas, almost all of this version of the holiday is false — a Romantic fantasy invented in 1854 by a 19th century magazine editor, one Sarah Josepha Hale, who was the Martha Stewart of her day.
The real “first Thanksgiving” has been extensively researched by historians at Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation, and what they tell us suggests that we probably should put quotation marks around the words every time we use the phrase “first Thanksgiving” — because it was neither.
We know there was a feast celebrated in Plymouth in 1621 because of an account by Edward Winslow, who described a harvest celebration similar to those held in Europe. Like the European harvest dinner, it was held in late September or early October, not November.
And Winslow’s letter said the purpose of the feast was to “rejoice together,” over the harvest. He never mentions giving thanks. In fact, the most common Christian form of offering thanks in those days was not feasting, but fasting.
Winslow notes that four men were sent out hunting wild birds for the feast. In all probability geese, ducks, and quail, not turkey, were most of the bounty.
Winslow also wrote of the settlers that “God fedde them out of the sea for the most parte…” So we can assume that fish, clams, and lobster probably made up a major part of the first non-Thanksgiving feast.
There would have been no potatoes or cranberry sauce. If cranberries were present, they would probably have been used for their tartness or color, since it would be 50 more years before the berries would be boiled with sugar.
And the presence of pumpkin pie was almost certainly another myth. Although the Separatists ate pumpkins and squash, they didn’t have either butter or wheat flour to make pie crust with in 1621.
Native Americans far outnumbered the Settlers at the dinner, and brought deer and other game to the feast. Within 20 years, the settlers repaid their trust and support by slaughtering them in their villages and taking their land.
About two centuries later, Sara Josepha Hale, editor of the popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” concocted the sanitized version of Thanksgiving that we celebrate today, and convinced President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim it as a national holiday.
Digging beneath that version of Thanksgiving tells us more about ourselves and our ancestors than perhaps is comfortable to know. But that’s what I like about history –it continually challenges my preconceptions — and I hope yours too.