Most of what I know about Thanksgiving, I learned from reading children's books. It seems, in the years since I was a kid, authors decided to debunk a few myths and use children’s literature to teach kids (and their parents) a thing or two about the first Thanksgiving or “harvest celebration” as they called it.
In 1620, 102 Pilgrims arrived at what became the Plymouth colony. It was an abandoned Indian village. That first year was terrible for the pilgrims. They had to live on the Mayflower and commute to land each day to build houses and a meeting room. Half of them died the first winter. Half. I can’t imagine having 50 funerals, but this tiny group did. William Bradford became their governor. Along came Squanto, who was an answer to their prayers. I wonder if the first encounter went like this.
(Bradford working in the garden)
Squanto: Hey man.
Bradford: You speak English?
S: Yeah, I was kidnapped by another group of you guys and traveled to England. Good fish and chips, but ultimately, I escaped.
B: Are you going to kill me?
S: Nope. Are you going to kidnap me?
B: Nope. That’s not really our way. Plus, I can’t get anything to grow so even if I wanted to I don’t have the energy.
S: You should go fishing.
B: Yeah, we’ve caught some fish, but what we really need are some crops.
S: No, I mean to put fish in the ground.
B: You can’t plant fish.
S: I don’t mean to make the fish grow. The fish will start to decompose under the soil and feed it the nutrients you need to grow something. (not sure Squanto was that technical, but he was awesome, so I’m going to assume he explained it like that.)
B: Oh, I see.
S: Try planting this. It’s maize. Super useful and grows very well here.
B: Thanks so much!
S: And hey, dude, you all need to take a bath. You could do like us and just strip down in a river or lake.
B: No thank you. We’re too modest to just “strip down” as you say, outside. Appreciate the tip though.
S: If you all washed a little better, you’d stop getting us sick.
B: No offense, but that sounds like nonsense.
S: It’s really not.
B: We use undergarments. If you wash those every few days, it just absorbs the soil.
S: Well, that’s more information than I hoped for. But, good luck with the maize.
B: If this works out, you guys should come over for a big meal, say early fall?
S: We’ll see.
Yep, I’m convinced that’s the exact conversation the two of them had. Since I’m clearly all about historical accuracy, what are myths we believed as kids that should be set straight?
The pilgrims probably didn’t wear black and white because colors that dark or stark would be hard to produce. Most likely, they wore earth tones and the women wore colorful dresses. There were no buckles. Sorry to burst your bubble, but buckles didn’t become the rage for another 50-60 years. All those buckles we covered with aluminum foil for school and church plays were unnecessary. Their great-grandkids were lousy with buckles, but just like turkey, buckles were not at the first Thanksgiving. Speaking of costume mistakes, the Wampanoag tribe (who shared a meal with the pilgrims) didn’t show up in short dresses and loin cloths like we imagine them doing because it was late fall in New England. They would have dressed for cold weather.
I mentioned before they didn't eat turkey. They had duck and geese, but no turkey. They also had other foods that would have been plentiful in coastal New England such as oysters, lobster, eel, and fish. The Wampanoags brought five deer. I’ve brought a bottle of wine to a dinner before, but never five deer. No wonder I didn’t get asked back. They also had the fruits of a bountiful harvest like squash, pumpkins, nuts, and berries. Seems like a lot of food, but the harvest celebration took three days. And if you’re feeling stressed just thinking about it, there were only four adult women doing the cooking. Yep four. Because the rest of them died. If you’re picturing the table as an even split of pilgrims to Wampanoags, think again. Ninety of them showed up outnumbering the pilgrims almost 2 to 1. I imagine they had a great time playing games outside and doing a lot of miming because only Squanto spoke English. They must have had fun or they wouldn’t have stayed three days.
A couple of other fun facts about Thanksgiving:
It was supposed to be a fast instead of a feast. The
Separationists we know as the pilgrims typically fasted to celebrate or give thanks to God. Since the Wampanoags decided to join them, they turned it into a feast. We owe so much to the Wampanoags.
For years, Thanksgiving wasn’t a real holiday, but and on again off again celebration that some presidents honored. Thomas Jefferson chose not to honor it because he felt it was dancing too close to the line of church and state. You have to respect that since that’s why pilgrims came here in the first place. Then along came Sarah Hale. She’s the one who wrote, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Being an important composer, she decided to use her platform to make Thanksgiving a real holiday that can’t be canceled on the whim of a president. And although Abraham Lincoln is often given credit for making Thanksgiving a holiday, he’s just the one who finally gave in. Sarah Hale lobbied for three decades. You read that right. It was three decades before someone said yes. Seems she learned persistence from my 6-year-old. The war wasn’t going well in 1863 and Lincoln thought it would be a good way make the nation feel united.
After that, Thanksgiving slowly became what we know of today. The only hiccup was in 1939 when FDR tried to move it up a week to allow more time for Christmas shopping and boost the economy. I think people would go for that today, especially this year when Thanksgiving is so late. Fourteen states refused to make the change, so the country had dueling Thanksgivings. Relatives wanted wanted to come visit, but their Thanksgiving was a week later. By 1941, he gave up and it went back to the 4th Thursday.
Over the years we added a parade, football, and lots of yummy traditional food. It’s interesting to read about all the details we got wrong about the first Thanksgiving, but they are just details. The big thing is that two very different groups who tended to misunderstand and fear one another came together and ate and had time to fellowship. They put aside their differences and discovered what they had in common. They tried new foods and probably new games and played charades. They gave thanks for everything they had knowing it could all be taken away in a flash. It’s not the details of the first Thanksgiving that we need to get right, it’s the big things. It’s focusing on what we have in common. Opening our homes and lives to others. Learning something new. Being thankful and eating a lot of venison. Just a lot of venison.