Holiday has little in common with colonists' feast
By Regis Behe
When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the nation was being torn apart by the Civil War.
A famous Thomas Nast illustration first printed in Harper's Weekly, "Thanksgiving-Day 1863," depicts a young woman as Lady Liberty, kneeling in prayer. Surrounding her are images of slaves praying for freedom and church-goers praying for peace.
There's nary a Pilgrim to be found.
Nor were there many of the contemporary fixings at what is now regarded as the first Thanksgiving, held in the Plymouth Colony in 1621. If one could go back in time and ask for directions to the pilgrims' feast, thou wouldst be greeted with a cold eye.
"They never called themselves pilgrims," says Nathaniel Philbrick, a former
The name, he says, comes from William Bradford's "History of Plymouth Plantation" when he said, "Their ultimate destination wasn't of this world, it was of heaven. They were pilgrims on this earth."
What is known about that 1621 celebration comes from a letter written by Edward Winslow, one of the colonists.
"Every culture has some sort of ceremony to deal with the fullness of the fall harvest," says Marshall Brain, the founder of www.howstuffworks.com. "I don't think we can appreciate this in a modern culture, but for any agrarian culture, its survival over the winter depended on the crops working and the harvest being successful in the fall. You can't appreciate how incredibly important it was to them, how grateful they were."
Thus, the invitation to the Wampanoags to join a feast where, according to Winslow's short account, the guests outnumbered their hosts by at least a 2-1 ratio.
"We do know they had plenty of ducks and geese," Philbrick says, adding the celebration was held at the end of September or in early October. "I grew up with this Currier & Ives image of people sitting around a table, but that wasn't the case."
Wasn't even close. Because there were so many guests, the feast had to be held outdoors to accommodate the estimated 100 Wampanoags that attended. There were no tables, no plates, and few utensils outside of knives to slice the meats. The Wampanoag's contribution were five deer, ready for roasting.
"It was very different from the sort of grim dinner we often have with our in-laws," Philbrick says with a chuckle.
That tradition -- the turkey, the trimmings, the awkward conversations -- almost never came about. When
By then, another tradition slowly had been taking hold, at least in
"They wanted to get the public ready for the Christmas shopping season," Brain says." It was purely an advertising ploy, totally commercial."
Canceled from 1942 to 1944 because of World War II, the parade returned in 1945, and in 1948 the Macy's parade was broadcast nationally on NBC-TV.
But what about that other institution that's become synonymous with Thanksgiving? Football has become -- for better or worse -- as important to the holiday as stuffing and pumpkin pie. The Detroit Lions had scheduled Thanksgiving Day games since 1934, and in 1956, the first Thanksgiving national television audience watched as the Lions met the Green Bay Packers.
"You had a lot of people sitting around with their families and not really doing anything," Brain says, "and it was in the middle of football season. It did uproariously well on television, and once something works, they keep doing it."
Romanticized visions vs. reality
Here are a few Thanksgiving myths dispelled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book, "Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage and War" (Penguin, $16 paperback).
Myth: The first Thanksgiving took place in November.
Fact: The exact date isn't known, but the feast we celebrate on the fourth Thursday in November likely occurred in late September or early October, shortly after the harvest of such fall crops as corn, beans, squash and barley. It also was not referred to as Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims, as the term applied to a time of spiritual devotion.
Myth: The Pilgrims gathered for the big feast as curious Indians looked on.
Fact: The Wampanoag tribe, led by Massasoit, dominated the proceedings, outnumbering their hosts two to one. About 100 Wampanoags arrived bearing welcome gifts: five freshly killed deer.
Myth: Celebrants dined at long tables draped in linen.
Fact: There weren't nearly enough chairs for everyone, so participants likely gathered around fires where deer and birds were roasted on spits. Forks had yet to be invented, so diners ate with knives and fingers.
Myth: The puritanical Pilgrims enjoyed an alcohol-free Thanksgiving feast.
Fact: Puritans or not, Pilgrims loved a good beer. No doubt ale was plentiful thanks to a recently harvested barley crop.
Myth: The native people thought highly of Pilgrim intelligence, since the English citizens brought with them advanced technology.
Fact: The Pilgrims might have had durable shoes, woven clothes and powerful muskets, but their lack of survival skills earned them little respect among the natives. Massasoit considered the Pilgrims "as a little child."
Myth: The first Thanksgiving led to years of peace.
Fact: Fear and suspicion constantly stalked the Pilgrims as well as the many Indian tribes in the area. Violent skirmishes peppered the uneasy relationships among cultures, and not long after the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims killed the sachem (chief) of a nearby tribe, thrusting his head on a pole outside the colonists' recently built fort.