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Thanksgiving, the All-American Holiday

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21November 21, 2012
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The story of the 1621 feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians is conventionally tied to Thanksgiving and has taken on the sheen of legend. When it comes to our late November holiday traditions and foods, however, Americans owe more to a New Hampshire writer named Sarah Josepha Hale than to the Plymouth Puritans.

Gardening pictureThe 1621 Feast
We actually know very little of the activities or foods consumed during the original feast in Plymouth. The only first-hand account of the event is a short description in a letter penned by Edward Winslow in 1621 to friends in England, by which we know that the colonists and Wampanoag spent three days together:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation...”

The Evolution of a Holiday

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An early 20th-century depiction of the 1621 Plymouth feast
According to James W. Baker’s “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday,” the true origin of the day lies not in the one-time 1621 festival, but rather in the tradition of New England’s Puritan holy days, declared periodically for thanksgiving and praise as a response to God’s providence.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared seven days of thanksgiving, intended as a time of prayer, not feasting. Some, but not all, early American presidents declared a day of Thanksgiving, including George Washington, who in 1789 issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November a “Day of Thanksgiving and prayer.” The Thanksgiving we know came about largely as a New England colonial and post-colonial holiday. New York was the first state to adopt an annual Thanksgiving celebration, and many other states had followed suit by the mid-1800’s.   

Sarah Josepha Hale: One Woman’s Quest

You may already know of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) as the author of the beloved and much-repeated children’s rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Hale also served as editor of the popular women’s
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Sarah Josepha Hale
journal of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which featured essays, morality-themed fiction, and hand-colored plates showing the latest fashions.

Although not a feminist, Hale did promote education for women. Having been widowed at a relatively young age and left to bring up five children, she championed the rights of married women and advocated for the improvement of American family life. She was also fervent in her support of turning Thanksgiving into a national November holiday. She used her influence as an editor to promote the idea and lobbied America’s presidents with astounding perseverance for 38 years, writing innumerable letters to Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, with no results. At the height of the Civil War, a bleak and frightening time of division in our nation’s history, Hale’s idea of a holiday to be observed by all Americans apparently struck a chord with President Lincoln. In 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation which said in part:
"It has seemed to me fit and proper that [God’s gifts] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States...to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

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Hales' 1863 letter to Lincoln
In the years after Lincoln’s declaration, each president followed suit by declaring a holiday on November's fourth Thursday. The only exception was a brief blip during the Depression, when in 1939 a group of business owners lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to extend the holiday shopping season by moving the day up to the third Thursday.  The date change, dubbed “Franksgiving,” proved unpopular, and by 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the celebration to be held on the fourth Thursday, and thus decided the issue once and for all.

The Thanksgiving Menu, Then and Now

Most of the foods we associate with Thanksgiving have their origin not in the 1621 Pilgrim and Wampanoag get-together but in later New England traditions. Although our usual Thanksgiving foods seem quite traditional to us, the Plymouth colonists would no doubt be astonished to behold a sumptuous modern holiday table. Their 1621 feast was likely limited to seafood such as cod, eel, lobster and clams, and meat such as wild fowl and venison. Their modest harvest probably included wheat, Indian corn and barley as well as native foods like squashes, pumpkins, wild plums, grapes, walnuts and chestnuts.

William Bradford’s account of the festival, recorded about twenty years after the fact, was belatedly discovered in 1854. This document records the fish, fowl and venison taken in during the summer of 1621, and also lends credence to our fond belief in the turkey tradition:
"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty...there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many..."
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Cornbread stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and whipped cream are all more complex and sophisticated culinary additions to the classic American holiday menu, derived from traditional New England fall harvests. As the holiday spread throughout the country, regional produce and seasonings have contributed each area’s own unique flavor variations to the menu.


Sources:
Thanksgiving: The Biography of a Holiday by James W. Baker; University of New Hampshire Press, 2009
Plimoth Plantation: Thanksgiving History

Images:
Godey’s Lady’s Book Thanksgiving cover in the public domain
“The First Thanksgiving” , c. 1912-1915, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930) in the public domain
Sarah Josepha Hale in the public domain
Sarah Josepha Hale letter in the public domain
Pumpkin pie from Wikimedia Commons


  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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