Do You Know the Real History of Thanksgiving?
Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate this memorable holiday when families get together to give thanks. It is also one of those holidays where we get to test our kitchen skills by preparing many dishes for a lot of people.
I often tell readers it is the one day of the year when you get a taste of what it would be like to be a professional cook. You may be cooking for ten or more people tomorrow but imagine cooking for ten times that many six days a week.
History of Thanksgiving
No matter who you turn to for your tale of the first Thanksgiving, there's almost always a heavy focus on what was served on that big, roughly-hewn table.
Images meant to remind us of pilgrims in crisp, clean hats and Indians sharing the land's bounty are just about everywhere - including the cornucopia centerpieces that grace many a table and the cheerful platters we get out only this one time each year.
However, the real history of Thanksgiving - the one that tells the discomforts of people making it across the ocean in a rickety, crowded, smelly boat only to find a harsh wilderness awaiting them - does not sit well for the holidays. That's why we've glossed and polished it until it looks like something we might want sitting next to Grandma as she takes a second helping of the sweet potato pie.
The Real Thanksgiving Story
Most of us associate Thanksgiving with one big meal presented to the starving Puritans by the native people. According to popular legend, these generous hosts brought wild game and shared their food - and knowledge - with the newcomers.
In reality, there were several thanksgiving festivals and many different times in history in which we can point back and say, "That was the original Thanksgiving feast."
According to some accounts, the original Thanksgiving feast was little more than a blip on the historical radar. However, a letter sent in the early 1620s mentions one meal between one Native American tribe and the Puritan settlers.
It was not repeated and not mentioned ever again. Many historians suspect this letter was really a kind of pre-American propaganda, written to hype up the comforts of the New World and attract more settlers.
Other accounts are more cheerful, indicating that the first feast was a three-day affair in which the local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, shared their bounty with the pilgrims who had just arrived on the Mayflower. But unfortunately, it was a rough journey, so only half of the passengers survived.
Those who did were weak with hunger and unable to find food in their strange, new environment. So the Native Americans fed them and taught them how to survive by hunting and harvesting local plant life.
Still, other stories paint a more harrowing scene in which the Native tribes gathered for their annual harvest festival in the 1630s. Unfortunately, the English and Dutch settlers of the time used this as an opportunity to further their wartime agenda, killing the people gathered for the celebration.
Today's Thanksgiving Story
At its core, the Thanksgiving myth is one that almost anyone can relate to during the holiday season. It doesn't matter which story you want to believe: the early marketing ploy, the goodwill of two cultures coming together, or the antagonism of settlers taking over land that isn't theirs.
The truth is that food was scarce in early American times, and to sit and eat with loved ones meant there was much to be thankful for. Life. Family. The promise and hope of the future.
It has also been a vital part of every culture to take a moment to be thankful for the bounty of the fall harvest. Whether you look at early Celtic, Germanic, or Asian cultures, there has always been a focus on remembering the role of nature and the deities in providing food and comfort.
These feelings - warm, grateful, appreciative - are the things we carry with us to Thanksgiving today. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln declared official days of Thanksgiving, although Lincoln assigned it the date of the last Thursday in November.
Even Franklin Roosevelt had a finger in the pie, so to speak, changing the official Thanksgiving date to the fourth Thursday of the month.
Remembering to be Thankful
In reality, there are few things more American than the idea of a thanksgiving holiday. As a nation, we took what was one moment in history and captured it, building an idealized picture of early life.
We wanted to celebrate the people who came before us, who paved the way for the life we now lead. And so we have.
We've built up a mythology. We've had several presidents make formal declarations of the holiday's importance. We've created a meal based on fall bounty like turkey, potatoes, and squash - perhaps not the foods they had at the first Thanksgiving, but foods that we know and celebrate as true American staples.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we've made it all about hope. While it is essential to take a moment to remember the hardships endured by every man, woman, and child who died in the early American days (Puritan or Native American), the truth is that being an American means persevering and building a better future.
When you sit around the table with those you love, remembering all the things you have to be thankful for, that's what you're doing. You're building a better future and enjoying what the world offers you today.
Happy Thanksgiving, and Good Eating!
Some of My Favorite Thanksgiving Posts
- The Cost of Your Thanksgiving Meal in 2023
- Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Apples and Maple-Sage Butter Recipe
- 20 Great Tips For Perfect Mashed Potatoes Every Time
- Thanksgiving Stuffing Waffle with Fried Egg
- How to Make the Best Turkey Stock For Gravy
- How to Deconstruct A Turkey
- New Spins on the Old Standards
- How to Grill a Turkey to Perfection on Your Gas Grill