The history of Thanksgiving in America is intertwined with the history of New England, and therefore the holiday holds a special place in the hearts of New Englanders. Although there are only two surviving accounts of the first Thanksgiving, we do know some important facts.
The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December, which as we all know is a rough time in Massachusetts. Almost half of the original colonists did not survive that first harsh winter, dying from disease and starvation. Those that did survive were bolstered by the help from the local Wampanoag tribe, who aided them with farming techniques. As a result, the Pilgrims were blessed with a successful harvest in the fall, which in England was traditionally celebrated with religious prayer and a feast. As a way of sharing their thanks, they invited the Wampanoag to come and celebrate with them. Thanking the Creator for the bountiful harvest was a Wampanoag tradition as well.
The first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days, and included recreational activities in addition to feasting. Much of what we traditionally eat today was not part of the original feast, as they did not have potatoes, butter, or flour. And although we know they ate deer and fowl, we cannot be sure that they actually ate turkey at that first feast. Based on their diet at the time, it has been speculated that they ate mussels, lobster, grapes, plum, and of course, corn.
For many years, Thanksgiving remained a regional holiday that was mainly celebrated in New England. But Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a national magazine, brought the holiday to national attention. She found writings from one of the colonists at the time, and became interested in the the history of the holiday. She petitioned five Presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and finally Abraham Lincoln did so in 1863. He did so as the country was in the middle of the Civil War at the time, and he hoped the new holiday would help unite the divided country.
Hale also found mention of hunting wild turkeys in the books, and although it was not explicitly stated that they were consumed at the first Thanksgiving, she wrote about them prominently. Ever since then, turkeys and Thanksgiving have been inseparable in the minds of Americans.
While Americans feast, the Native Americans often use Thanksgiving as day of mourning and remembrance. They celebrate the past and make sure that people remember their traditions, and look to the future as an opportunity for hope and progress.
Make sure to give thanks today, as well as remembering those who came before us and thinking about those who will come after us. Happy Thanksgiving!