Thanksgiving: The Holiday and the Feast

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. Most families and friends eat turkey, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, squash, or pumpkin as part of their celebration. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Why do we eat these foods?

President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, but the celebration began with the Pilgrims. Their ship, the Mayflower, had been swept off course and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1620. They were supposed to land in Virginia! Landing hundreds of miles farther north meant the growing season was shorter and that winter was much colder. The Pilgrims were sick and didn’t have much food. Nearly half of them died. The first year was very difficult. They worried about starving. There were no stores to buy food and other goods. The Pilgrims had come from towns in Europe that had markets, so some of them didn’t know how to grow their own crops, especially not in this new environment and climate.

The Wampanoag people showed the Pilgrims what crops to grow in the New England region. They taught the Pilgrims to put a fish in the ground to act as fertilizer (or food) for the soil. They taught the Pilgrims which plants grew well together, such as corn, beans, and squashes (including pumpkins!). Barley, oats, peas, parsley and other herbs, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips were also grown.

The Wampanoag also taught the Pilgrims how they fished. The Pilgrims set traps for lobster and collected shellfish, such as mussels and clams. The Pilgrims also hunted deer, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants, geese, and ducks. They learned about cranberries and picked them from bogs. They gathered mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts from the forests.

When fall came and the crop was bountiful enough to get through the coming winter, the Pilgrims were grateful. They wanted to give thanks to God for helping them to survive. Governor William Bradford sent men out to hunt, so they could have a harvest festival. The Wampanoag leader, King Massasoit, along with 90 men, joined the Pilgrims for three days of celebration.

They ate deer, seafood, and fowl (birds). Turkey was one of the fowl, but they likely ate ducks and geese, too. While they didn’t have bread stuffing like we eat, they stuffed the birds with nuts and onions. The meals offered many types of meat because Pilgrims considered it to be very healthful. Beans, pumpkins and other squashes, nuts, berries, and corn (used to make bread or porridge) were also served. In addition to eating, they hunted and enjoyed entertainment.

The Pilgrims didn’t plan to start an annual tradition; the festival wasn’t held in following years. President George Washington announced the holiday in 1789, but it took more than 200 years from the original event for Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the same day in each state. Because no one knows exactly when the Pilgrims celebrated, people had Thanksgiving when they wanted to. Some states didn’t celebrate it at all.

As cities grew, stores became well-stocked, and eating deer and seafood became less common. Dishes like potatoes or sweet potatoes were unknown to the Pilgrims, but later became a part of the American diet. Pilgrims ate pumpkin as a side dish rather than as a dessert pie. That’s right! There was no pumpkin pie. They didn’t have the wheat flour or extra sugar for pies. Cranberries were not eaten by the Pilgrims as a sauce with turkey, but rather as dried berries. Turkey, a delicious bird only found in America, became the meat of choice in part due to Sara Josepha Hale.

Sara Josepha Hale was an author who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” After reading a Pilgrim’s journal, Hale wanted to recreate that first Thanksgiving feast. Beginning in 1837, Hale contacted president after president for over 20 years to make Thanksgiving a uniform, national holiday. She published recipes for turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie in Godey’s Lady’s Book, some of the most important ladies’ books of the time. As editor, Hale was able to discuss the importance of Thanksgiving and share recipes for many years. Her Thanksgiving recipes, distributed to thousands of women, shaped the Thanksgiving menu and how we celebrate now. President Lincoln responded to Hale’s letter in 1863 by making Thanksgiving a national holiday on a set day. Hale is considered the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

Like the Pilgrims before us, we have much to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

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