Do You Know the Real History of Thanksgiving?
Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate this special holiday when families get together to give thanks. It is also one of those holidays where we get to test our skills in the kitchen by preparing a lot of 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 10 or more people tomorrow but imagine cooking for 10 times that many 6 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 of us of pilgrims in crisp, clean hats and Indians sharing the bounty of the land 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 – isn’t one that sits 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 that was presented to the starving Puritans by the native people. According to popular legend, these generous hosts brought wild game and proceeded to share their food – and their 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. A letter sent in the early 1620s mentions one such meal, between one Native American tribe and the Puritan settlers.
It was not repeated and not mentioned ever again. Many historians suspect that this letter was really a kind of pre-American propaganda, written with the intent 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. 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. The Native Americans not only fed them, but also 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. The English and Dutch settlers of the time used this as an opportunity to further their wartime agenda, killing the people gathered for celebration.
Today’s Thanksgiving Story
At it’s 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 a scarcity in the early American times, and to be able 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 strong 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 types of feelings – warm, grateful, appreciative – are the things that we carry with us to Thanksgiving today. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln declared official days of thanksgiving, although it was Lincoln who 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 in 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 essentially one moment in history and captured it, building an entire 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 important 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 really doing. You’re building a better future, and enjoying what the world has to offer you today.
Happy Thanksgiving and Good Eating!