THANKSGIVING AT PLYMOUTH
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.
THANKSGIVING BECOMES AN OFFICIAL HOLIDAY
Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened the year’s harvest and prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.
In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each celebrated it on a different day, however, and the American South remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition. In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians. Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
In many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been on offer when the Pilgrims hosted the inaugural feast in 1621. Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird—whether roasted, baked or deep-fried—on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.
Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.
Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.
For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims’ celebration. In 1565, for instance, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival. On December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia’s James River, they read a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Some Native Americans and others take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially to schoolchildren. In their view, the traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar events are held in other parts of the country.
We all know the story of Thanksgiving. Or do we? This homegrown American holiday has a rich and little-known history beyond the famous feast of 1621. Here are four surprising stories:
1. People disagree about when the first Thanksgiving was held.
If you could ask a Pilgrim about the three-day celebration with the Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621, which most Americans think of as the first Thanksgiving, he would not have used the word “Thanksgiving.” For the Pilgrims, rather, a day of Thanksgiving was imbued with religious meaning and set aside for prayer and worship.
From the Pilgrims’ point of view, their first “Thanksgiving” took place in July 1623. Governor William Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving to give thanks for the rain that had ended a drought and saved their harvest. Bradford wrote in his journal that the rain fell “with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God.”
But in 1962, a Virginia state senator objected when President John. F. Kennedy mentioned Plymouth as the site of the First Thanksgiving. “America’s First Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in Virginia in 1619,” the Virginian wrote the president, referring to a religious ceremony that English settlers held when they arrived in Berkeley Plantation near Richmond. “Please issue an appropriate correction.”
“You are quite right,” came the reply from JFK’s special assistant, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “I can only plead unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.”
Schlesinger made sure that JFK did not slight Virginia again. In 1963, Kennedy’s Thanksgiving proclamation began: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts … set aside a time of thanksgiving.” Virginians were pleased to note that their state was named first, followed by the president’s home state of Massachusetts.
2. The Pilgrims likely ate corn instead of cranberries.
If you want to eat what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate in the 1600’s, put venison, corn and oysters on your Thanksgiving menu. The venison was provided courtesy of the Wampanoag who, like every good Thanksgiving guest ever since, brought a contribution to the feast—in this case, five deer.
Turkey may also have been on the table, but unlike today, it was not the centerpiece of the meal. Bradford writes in his Journal that there was a “great store of wild turkey” as well as other fowl at the time of the First Thanksgiving. The early English settlers also ate duck, geese, swan, crane, gulls and even eagle.
Cranberries grew wild in New England, but if a curious Pilgrim had picked and eaten one, he would not have wanted to eat a second. Cranberries are extremely tart and need sweetening to be palatable. Since sugar was expensive in England, it’s unlikely the Pilgrims had brought any with them on the Mayflower.
3. Not everyone liked the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday.
It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving as a source of political controversy. But such was the case in 1789, when George Washington called our first Thanksgiving as a nation. In his proclamation, Washington asked Americans to gather on the last Thursday of November to give thanks for the establishment of “a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Some Members of Congress objected. The authority to designate a Thanksgiving Day belonged to individual state governors, not the president, they said. Others said Thanksgiving was a “religious matter” and therefore proscribed. Congress had just debated the text of the First Amendment, so the meaning of separation of church and state was fresh in Members’ minds.
Washington—wise in this as in almost every other matter—issued the proclamation, but then “requested” the governors to proclaim his suggested day of Thanksgiving in their states; he did not order them to do so. Thanksgiving was widely celebrated throughout the land.
4. Football quickly became a central part of the holiday.
The modern-day Thanksgiving holiday began in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of national Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War. Every subsequent president has followed Lincoln’s example.
Thanksgiving Day football games are almost as old as the holiday itself. The first Thanksgiving Day football game took place in the mid-1870s, when Princeton played Yale in Hoboken, N.J. The Princeton-Yale game was a catalyst for the creation of a popular audience for Thanksgiving Day football, and by the 1890s there were thousands of games being played across the country.
As Thanksgiving football fever swept the nation, many worried that “King Football” had replaced family and gratitude as the true meaning of the day. The Chicago Tribune spoke for many when, in 1896, it asked whether there was too much football and too little thanksgiving on the holiday.
One aspect of the holiday that has stayed the same over the centuries is gratitude. On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans of all religious faiths, and of none, pause to give thanks.
Busy day for plumbers
The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day for plumbers, according to Roto-Rooter. Meal prep and cleanup can clog drains and garbage disposals, and guests requiring “additional clothes washing, showers, and toilet flushes put a strain on household plumbing,” the company says. It experiences a 21 percent increase in calls over the four-day weekend than any other Thursday to Sunday period in the year.
Big Bird is a…turkey?
Big Bird’s suit on Sesame Street consists of turkey feathers that have been dyed yellow. The American Plume & Fancy Feather company is responsible for making the suit, and Big Bird is its toughest customer, owner Anthony Trento told CNN in 2008. “His tremendous costume uses feathers from the rear end of a turkey, which are rarely clean. Sesame Street rejects nine out of ten feathers,” said Trento.
The first Thanksgiving Day parade looked a little different
Every year, millions watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person and on TV. Macy’s began the parade, then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade, in 1924 to celebrate their expansion and new status as “world’s largest store.” People today would be familiar with most of the first parade’s contents; there were floats featuring nursery rhyme characters and Santa Claus in his sleigh. What might be out of place today were the animals—bears, elephants, camels, and monkeys loaned from the Central Park Zoo. Giant balloons debuted a few years later, in 1927, with Felix the Cat among the very first.
This state is all about turkey
Minnesota produces more turkeys than any other state in the U.S., raising close to 46 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Have turkey questions? Call the hotline
The Turkey Talk-Line hotline from Butterball answers all turkey questions each November and December. It began in 1981 with six home economists, who answered 11,000 calls about how to cook a turkey. Since then, the hotline has grown to answer 100,000 calls each season, and include Spanish-speakers, the first male Turkey Talk-Line expert, and email, texting, live chat, and social media platforms. Get more information and learn how to get in touch here.
Americans really, really like turkey
The National Turkey Foundation (NTF) estimates that around 88 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and about 46 million turkeys were consumed on the holiday in 2015. Turkey has become a bigger part of the American diet recently, with consumption nearly doubling over the past 25 years, according to the NTF.
Male turkeys, also called toms, are the only ones that can gobble. The females, or hens, make clucking or clicking sounds.
Americans prefer the white meat of the turkey, like the breast. Other countries prefer dark meat. Pacific Islanders, however, prefer a whole different part of the turkey: the tail. In a news report from the University of Michigan, researcher Sela Panapasa says that many islanders love the turkey tail, or more accurately “a gland that attaches the tail to the turkey’s body. It’s filled with oil that the turkey uses to preen its feathers.”
On the road again
The American Automobile Association (AAA) expects that Thanksgiving 2016 travel will be at its highest since 2007, with 48.7 million Americans projected to trek 50 miles or more. This is an increase of about a million people from 2015. The majority of travelers (around 89 percent) will drive.
The Presidential pardon
The first official presidential pardon of a turkey occurred much more recently than most might think: President George H.W. Bush did it in 1989, and it’s since become an annual tradition. Stories of unofficial pardons, however, go further back – perhaps even to President Lincoln’s days, when he supposedly pardoned a turkey after an impassioned plea from his son Tad for the bird’s right to live.
Thanksgiving didn’t officially start in the 1600s
Though the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, it didn’t become a U.S. holiday until 1864; President Abraham Lincoln announced it after the Union army won a battle at Gettysburg. Thanksgiving was set as the fourth Thursday in November, and has been since, except for a brief period towards the end of the Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in 1939, in an attempt to boost the economy by giving shoppers more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This was reversed in 1941.
We don’t know if turkey was served at the First Thanksgiving
It’s not exactly clear if turkey was served at the First Thanksgiving, though Colonists and Native Americans did eat wild turkey, according to the Plimoth Plantation, an experiential learning center in Plymouth, Massachusetts. An account of the First Thanksgiving from Edward Winslow mentions hunters who brought plenty of fowl, which probably included ducks, geese, swan, and perhaps turkeys, along with venison, lobster, mussels, and grapes. Items from our typical Thanksgiving dinner, such as cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, were absent from the first table. Sugar was expensive at the time, and the Pilgrims likely had none. Potatoes, which originated in South America, also had not yet made their way into the North American diet.
While domesticated turkeys cannot fly, wild turkeys can, for short distances, and at up to 55 miles per hour, according to the NTF! They can also run up to 20 miles per hour.
The tradition of football games on Thanksgiving dates back to 1934, when the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears in the first NFL game broadcast nationally. George A. Richards, a radio executive and owner of the Detroit Lions team, wanted to gain the attention of fans with a Thanksgiving Day game. His idea worked, and all 26,000 tickets sold out two weeks before kickoff. The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game each year since. The Dallas Cowboys also began hosting on Thanksgiving in 1966, and a third game was added with rotating matchups in 2006.
Canadians have Thanksgiving, too
Americans aren’t the only ones who celebrate Thanksgiving. The first official Thanksgiving in Canada was in 1879, though traditions of honoring the fall harvest predate both the official American and Canadian holidays. The date was moved around until 1957, when Thanksgiving was set as the second Monday of October.
Happy Thanksgiving Hernando!