Before I talk about the American Thanksgiving and it’s history, I want to note that there has been harvest festivals in almost every country in the world. long before the first white men landed in the new world, and continuing right through today.
Canadians celebrate their own Thanksgiving in October of each year, while November is the month that those in North America celebrate their own harvest festival.
But 400 years ago, this celebration was far more than a celebration of a bountiful harvest, and those first settlers known as Pilgrims truly had many things to be thankful for.
It was November 1620 when the Pilgrims first set foot at Plymouth. They chose this area to make their home because there were rivers and streams to provide them with water and fish, and forest to provide them with game.
Even though November was too late in the year to plant crops, those early Pilgrims believed that nature would supply them with the food they needed until spring, when crops could be planted and real homes could be built.
However, the Pilgrims were not prepared for nature’s fury during the winter months, and large amounts of snowfall and the bitter cold, made hunting and fishing difficult, and the Pilgrims were forced to rely on the meagre supplies they had brought with them.
Many succumbed to the hunger and cold, and when spring came, there was less than 50 settlers left out of the 110 that had landed in this new country, just 4 shorts months before.
The Pilgrims were weak, tired, and disheartened and had no idea how to plant crops in the hard packed soil, or the first thing about surviving in this wilderness they now called home. Then one day, an Indian brave walked into the Pilgrims camp and greeted them in English.
The next day he returned with another brave named Squanto. It was Squanto who was to help the Pilgrims survive. He taught them how to tap the maple trees for sap, how to plant Indian corn and other vegetables, he showed them which plants were poisonous and which could be used as medicine. Squanto showed them how to gather berries and other edible plants.
Under Squanto’s guidance, the Pilgrims learned to adapt to their new homes, they grew crops and built permanent shelters, and when the fall harvest came, they were relieved to find that they had enough food to survive the coming winter. Their larders were stocked with dried berries and beans, they had fish packed in salt, and game cured and smoked, they had stores of pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes.
William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth colony, was so relieved that his colony had enough adequate food and shelter to survive the coming winter that he declared that there should be a harvest feast, and invited Squanto and his people to join in the celebration.
For three days the feast went on, with singing, dancing, games, and competitions. While the Pilgrims were celebrating the bountiful harvest, they were also celebrating the fact that they had survived the first year in this harsh new wilderness, and were thankful to their Native American friends that made survival possible.
From that day on, different states would hold annual Thanksgiving festivals on dates set by the individual state, until President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Tuesday of November as a National day of Thanksgiving.
After the day was changed another time or two, in 1941, The National Thanksgiving holiday became the 4th Thursday of November, which is when Americans now celebrate this holiday.
Thanksgiving today is still a day of giving thanks, but today the celebration usually includes family and friends, and consists mainly of cooking, eating, watching football, and watching the Thanksgiving parades on television. Some families do take part in more active activities, such as flag football games or soccer.
The evening hours are usually spent planning for marathon shopping trips the coming day, as the Friday after Thanksgiving is normally the biggest shopping day of the year, as stores reduce prices on upcoming Christmas items and people rush out to get the best possible deals.
Today’s Thanksgiving Feast Nothing Like The Original
Because little was known about what was actually consumed during that first Thanksgiving feast, American’s somehow got the idea that turkey was the main item on the menu. In an effort to keep with what they once believed to be a traditional feast, most people would enjoy roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and vegetables, often green beans.
Ironically, history scholars who found a single reference to the first Thanksgiving feast, and who studied the food that was available, feel that we have gotten the original feast completely wrong.
To begin with, although historians know that the Pilgrims hunted wild fowl as part of the Thanksgiving feast, there is no specific mention of turkey. If turkey was had at that first feast, it certainly was not the main meat, as it would have shared that place of honor with ducks, geese, and swan, as well as the 5 deer that the native Americans brought as part of their contribution.
They also brought lobster, eel, and mussel. There was probably also some rabbits, squirrel, and other small game available as well.
Though there was no traditional stuffing, there was probably some corn meal pudding, as well as dried beans and berries, sweet potatoes ( white potatoes were not thought of as edible at that time), squash, pumpkin, parsnips, cabbage, collard and mustard greens, onions, grapes and nuts.
There were no apple or pumpkin pies because it would take years before apples grew in this new land, and the Pilgrims had used most of their meagre supplies the first winter, so flour would not have been available for the crust.
Pumpkin would have been served as a vegetable, and any sweet treats that Pilgrims concocted would have been sweetened with honey or maple syrup. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of food that the Pilgrims consumed that first Thanksgiving, is often replicated in many homes, with left overs being eaten for days on end after the holiday.
For those who grow their own vegetables and even raise some of their own meat, Thanksgiving is a truly organic holiday, and these people take great pride in seeing their table heaped full of food that they have grown with their own hands and labor.
Often times, larger families will all divide the dishes among them, each bringing an offering to the Thanksgiving meal, just like the Pilgrims and Native Americans did.
Many families décor their homes for the fall holidays, including Halloween and Thanksgiving, by using natural decorations such as corn stalks, pumpkins and gourds, pine cones, and acorns, to create festive fall decorations. Sometimes Indian corn is hung on the door, both for decoration and as a remembrance of what the first Thanksgiving was all about.
Gourds are arranged on mantles or stands. And miniature pumpkins may be carved out to make organic candle lanterns. Larger pumpkins may be carved and serve as flower vases and used to serve some of the holiday food in.
Yellow, gold, and orange mums often grace tables and stands, and kids enjoy making Indian headdresses and Pilgrim hats from construction paper, as well as potato and hand print turkeys.
Since many businesses close for the long four day weekend, many families use the weekend to put up their Christmas trees, rushing the Christmas season.
How do you share Thanksgiving in your home? What are you most thankful for in your life?