Thanksgiving is a very popular holiday here in America. Most people know that Thanksgiving started with the Pilgrims, but few people know its more recent history.
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. Ninety-six days later the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth. Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship. In March, the 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. 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,” the festival lasted for three days.
There is no exact record of what was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving, but it is known that there was a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Fowling could have brought back any type of birds native to the area, including: wild turkey, swan, ducks, and geese. Herbs, onions, or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor. It is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses. Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries. Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds. Lobster, bass, clams, and oysters might also have been part of the feast. Seal may also have been on the menu. There were no potatoes or pumpkin pie, but they may have had pumpkin on the menu.
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. 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. In 1827, the noted magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. 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 “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.
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. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats, and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.
Nearly 90 percent of Americans eat turkey —whether roasted, baked, or deep-fried—on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. 248 million turkeys are raised in America every year, which are worth $4.37 billion. It is estimated that 51 million of those turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, and 19 million at Easter. The annual consumption of turkey by the average American is 16 pounds. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States’ bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour and can run up to 20 miles per hour.
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.
I love Thanksgiving. It’s a wonderful time for family to come together and an important time to reflect on the blessings in your life. I also love all of the food.