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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

A Look Back at the First Thanksgiving
by Bob Brooke


Step back in time to the Fall of 1621. You’re standing in a small settlement about an hour south of Boston near what’s today Plymouth, Massachusetts. It doesn’t seem like any special day. Many of the villagers are going about their daily chores while others prepare their homes for the coming winter. The smell of wood fires fills the air and with it the tantalizing smells of roasting meat. Though you don’t know it, the villagers, whom we’ve come to know as Pilgrims, are preparing for a harvest feast to celebrate their bountiful crops.

Today's Thanksgiving celebration isn’t anything like what you’re about to experience in this 17th-century recreation of the Pilgrim’s original settlement, known as Plimoth Plantation. Within this living history site, actors play the roles of Pilgrims and Indians who lived in the settlement or nearby. The actors, each portraying real people who lived in the village, attempt to preserve an accurate representation of Pilgrim life in the early 17th century.

Thanksgiving is a blend of several earlier traditions—the New England custom of rejoicing after a successful harvest, a solemn religious observance combining prayer and feasting, and finally, the commemoration of the Pilgrims' landing known as Forefathers' Day.

Celebrations combining sacrifices, rituals and joyful reveling after a successful crop gathering are as old as the harvest itself. Thus, in 1621 when a bountiful harvest rewarded the Pilgrims after a year of sickness and scarcity, they gave thanks to God and celebrated His bounty in the Harvest Home tradition in which they had been brought up. To these people of strong Christian faith, this wasn’t merely a revel—it was a joyous outpouring of gratitude.

While the Pilgrims were a reverent group of believers, they didn’t wear black nor were they somber and sad as history has portrayed them. Like their contemporaries back in England, they dressed in colored clothing, not just black, white, and gray, and they wore what was in style at the time. And while Thanksgiving decorations and depictions show the Pilgrims wearing buckles on their belts and shoes, they weren’t actually used until the late 18th century.

They drank beer, considered more nourishing than water, laughed, worried, and worked hard. The Pilgrims regularly played rustic sports, feasted, and entertained themselves through singing and such. And a few managed to get punished for quarreling and public drunkenness. In short, they were just like many of the other settlers who came to the New World.

To the Puritans of early New England, a true "Thanksgiving" was any day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking God for His Providence or for some auspicious event. It was like an extra Sabbath during the week. This sort of solemn event was what early colonial governors intended when declaring a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims had had a terrible first year but those that remained—only 50 remained alive out of 100—had recovered and regained their strength. Everyone did their part. Some fished for cod and bass, which they took in great quantities so that every family received their allotted portion. Throughout the summer there was no want and as fall began, the governor sent out four men to hunt for ducks, geese, and swans for the winter. And besides waterfowl, they bagged a great number of wild turkeys and some venison as well to prepare for the harvest feast. The Pilgrims refrained from including lobsters in their menu since they were so easy to catch, most considered them food for the poor. They also had a good crop of Indian corn which they ground up and made into corn meal.

The governor invited the Indians to the settlement. Among them was their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, who the Pilgrims feasted and entertained for three days. For their contribution, the Indians went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and gave to the villagers.

Trenchers, small square or round wooden plates, took the place of dinner plates, and some-times two people shared one. Forks weren't used until 1630. Before that the Pilgrims ate with knives and a few spoons. Because they used their hands to serve the food and to eat with, each person had a huge, three-foot-square cloth slung over his or her shoulder.
Another misconception was that 17th-century cooking was bland. Spices came aboard the Mayflower. The cooks in the 17th century put nutmeg and ginger into many of their dishes.

Beyond this bit of information, there are few written accounts of that first Thanksgiving.

Early Thanksgiving Proclamations

The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. This was meant to be a somber event, and Congress recommended that people refrain from work and recreation that may be unbecoming the purpose of this day.

Presidents Washington, Adams, and Monroe also proclaimed national days of Thanksgiving, but the custom fell out of favor after 1815. In 1827, Mrs. Sara Josepha Hale, a writer who had composed the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and later editor of Godey's Lady's Book, began a campaign to reinstate the holiday by petitioning several succeeding Presidents to make it an annual event.

But it wasn’t until 1863, when President Lincoln declared two Thanksgivings, one for Thursday, August 6, and a second for the last Thursday in November, that it became an official holiday. From that time on, every succeeding President declared some Thursday in autumn Thanksgiving Day. Eventually, Lincoln's choice of the last Thursday in November became the traditional date.

The Pilgrims Redefined
It was about this time in the late 19th century that the third element—commemoration of the Pilgrims—entered the Thanksgiving picture. While interest in the Pilgrims as historic figures began shortly before the Revolution, it wasn’t until the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, that people really became interested in life in colonial times. But somewhere along the line, the information about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving became twisted. Part of that can be traced to the insufficient historical research conducted during the last quarter of the 19th century. Wealthy women, with time on their hands, raised money for historic restorations. While they meant well, they lacked the expertise to conduct proper studies of the Pilgrim period.

As happened elsewhere in the colonies, a group of upper class men founded The Old Colony Club in Plymouth in 1769. They held an annual dinner and speech on
Forefathers' Day in December to mark the anniversary of the Pilgrims landing. From then on, the people of Plymouth, as well as Boston and New York, regularly celebrated Forefather’s Day.

By the mid-19th century, the popularity of Forefathers' Day began to fade—only the town of Plymouth continued to celebrate it on December 21—while the importance of Thanksgiving grew. After 1890, representations of the Pilgrims began to reflect a shift of interest to the 1621 harvest celebration. That event which we now call the "First Thanksgiving" came to symbolize the union of prosperity and brotherhood as school teachers taught a stylized version of the event.

As time went on, each succeeding generation added it’s own spin on the story of the first Thanksgiving until it evolved into the holiday we know today. Together with the paper turkeys, cutout Pilgrims dressed in black, gray, and white, cranberry sauce, and afternoon football games, Thanksgiving has truly become an all-American holiday.


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