This year I took part in a reenactment dinner theater of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, so with all the research I have been doing into the manners and customs of the pilgrims, my column seemed like an ideal place to compile and present some of my new-found knowledge.
The events leading up to the first Thanksgiving were so full of hardship, danger and death, as to make me pity the poor pilgrims who had to endure these difficulties. To us, today, the risks and conditions that were involved in traveling to the “new world” would be intolerable and unthinkable. But then, we are used to a life of luxury and ease.
In the days of the pilgrims, life was hard wherever they looked. Wars and religious persecutions raged all around them. The thought of starting over in a “new world” probably sounded refreshing and like a heaven-sent option to escape their present difficulties. In any case, they felt that the risks of such an ocean adventure to the “new world” was preferable to the conditions they had to endure in Europe.
The financial backers of the voyage thought that the congregation of Separatists was too small, so they recruited more local people to add to the passenger list. Only about half were escaping religious persecution. The other half, the non-religious, called “Strangers” were just regular people seeking opportunity in the new world.
After many delays and difficulties, the Mayflower left England in September 1620, but the problems for the 102 passengers and 40 crew members were just beginning.
The Mayflower was a small ship — just 100 feet long — and leaky. The weather was rough, food was lacking and conditions were unsanitary.
After three months at sea, the “saints” and “strangers” landed at Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620.
The passengers of the Mayflower began to argue about who was going to be in charge of the settlement they were going to build since they were far off course from their intended destination in Virginia.
The leaders of the group quickly drafted a document called the Mayflower Compact. It was a simplified constitution of sorts that set forth temporary laws. It formed a framework of self-governance for the new colony. All 41 men in the group agreed to it and signed the document.
Since it was winter when the colonists arrived in the “new world,” they lived on board the ship. The winter was brutal and half of them died before spring.
When the weather became milder, the remaining passengers went ashore to establish a settlement. It was at that time they met some friendly Indians who knew English.
Squanto helped the Europeans survive their first year by teaching them how to grow corn and other survival skills.
The Pilgrims soon found that food was more plentiful in the new world than it had been in England and there were no hunting restrictions.
In the garden, Indian corn was the main crop, but it was not to be eaten fresh. It was for drying and pounding into meal and flour. Incidentally, the kernals were not golden yellow as we think of them, but a variety of colors. They could be red, black, white, yellow, purple, gray or blue.
“Beans, pumpkins, wheat, barley, oats and peas” were also a part of the Pilgrim’s summer gardens. If they did not have a good harvest, they could starve to death in the winter, so it was very important to grow and store as much food as possible.
The first Plymouth Thanksgiving took place after the harvest of 1621. Governor William Bradford is credited with planning and organizing the event.
It is estimated that just 50 colonists survived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving: “22 men, four married women and 25 children and teenagers.”
There was not just one day of celebration, but several. Food, games, foot races, singing and dancing and other activities likely entertained the Pilgrims and their guests.
The guests of honor were 90 Wampanoag Indian braves and their chief Massasoit who had helped teach the colonists techniques of fishing, hunting and growing food to make this feast possible.
The menu for first Thanksgiving very likely included: fowl, deer, nuts, beans, pumpkins, squash, corn, cornmeal, cabbage, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, turnips, parsley, onions, herbs, garlic, fish, cranberries, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, lobsters, eels, oysters and other sea food.
Despite the Plymouth colonists getting credit for hosting the first Thanksgiving, there were some other celebrations that were candidates too, most notably a Thanksgiving held in Jamestown, Virginia in the spring of 1610. The colonists set aside a day of thanksgiving after a shipment of supplies arrived.
In the years that followed, Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated in some form at the local and state level in America, but it was not a national holiday.
On October 3, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln declared that the nation would observe a day of thanksgiving on November 26 of that year. It was thought it was in response to the Union victory at Gettysburg.
Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to make Thanksgiving a week earlier to boost the holiday shopping season, but was met with opposition and ridicule. People called the earlier date “Franksgiving.” After the public outcry, a law was passed in Congress that made Thanksgiving permanently on the last Thursday of November.
These days, Thanksgiving means a time to gather and celebrate a lot of fun family traditions, eat delicious food and relax. It also means a time of counting our blessings and giving to those who are in need in our communities and beyond.
For some, Christmas celebrations start with putting up their tree on Thanksgiving and getting geared up for that all-important Black Friday Christmas sale.
However you celebrate, it is a time of peace and reflection that prepares us for the exuberance and joy of the holiday season that follows.
For all our many blessings, we give God thanks.