Hi Everyone, the Whisperer and getting ready for another great day of relaxation at the end of the month. The Halloween season was wonderful an d now its autumn again, and what better way to celebrate but with a feast for Thanksgiving!
Ah…Thanksgiving, that great holiday where you can take off for four or more days (kids these days sometimes get the whole week off!) to enjoy a wonderful feast that you can only eat once a year.
The Whisperer enjoys all of the favorites at his usual family gathering: turkey and gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green veggies and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. All quite delectable in their own good ways! We remember this event as the time when the Pilgrims, some of the first settlers in the United States, enjoyed a meal with the neighboring Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, and had what we now call a day of “thanksgiving” at the end of the harvest season. But how did Thanksgiving come about you might ask? What were the conditions the Pilgrims had to endure in their time? What about the food we eat such as the ubiquitous turkey? When did it become an American national holiday? Well just sit tight my friends, readers and students and we will catapult you through time to learn the history of Thanksgiving before the turkey runs off your plate!
Pilgrims in 17th century America
The people we now call the Pilgrims have also been referred to as “Separatists” as they did not believe in what the Church of England practiced during the 1600s in England apart from the rest of the British congregation. This group of religious dissenters assembled together and first traveled to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution. They came back to England and with the help of their soon-to-be governor William Bradford collected the necessary supplies and money to embark on a voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.
After making all of the preparations about 102 passengers with Captain Myles Standish on board, set off on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England in September 1620. They had to endure poor and cramped living conditions out on the raging ocean, with many people dying on board. Land was not spotted until November 1620 which was a blessing for the remaining passengers on board during the long journey. Unfortunately their ship had gone too far north than their planned destination in North America and took several days by land and by sea until they reached the historic “Plymouth Rock”. Before disembarking they created a legal document known as the Mayflower Compact in order to set up a new colony and is considered America’s first step at democracy.
They established what is now known as Plymouth Colony before joining the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony several decades later. For the next year they had to learn to live off the land, growing their own food and having to endure constant sickness and disease with very few people surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621. If it was not for a native Patuxent tribesman named Squanto, who had learned to speak English from past British settlers, they would not have established their agricultural way of life.
The “First” Thanksgiving
With help from Squanto and the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims were able to become more self-sufficient in their new home learning to grow herbs, fruits (like pumpkins!) and vegetables native to America as well as how to hunt and cook their own meat. The surviving 47 or so settlers of men, women and children were able to enjoy a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, marking a year after their arrival in the New World. After the harvest had been collected, Squanto, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and around ninety of his tribesman gathered together with the Pilgrim settlers bringing deer along with them while the Pilgrims hunted for wild fowl. Over a three day period they “entertained and feasted” (cited from Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation) , giving thanks to the harvest and of the year they had spent adjusting to a new way of life.
Governor William Bradford recorded this singular event, along with first-hand accounts of the Pilgrims’ and later the Puritans’ way of life from their arrival in 1620 through the 1640s in his work, Of Plymouth Plantation. Later Puritan settler and leader named Edward Winslow, who came after the feast, related about early life in Puritan New England, including a mention of the “first” Thanksgiving in his book called Mourt’s Relation, which he co-wrote with William Bradford. If not for Winslow’s book and Bradford’s accounts, we might not have known anything about what we now call our “first” Thanksgiving. Soon after the Pilgrims were settled into their new home across the Atlantic, they were joined by other members of the Puritan faith and so the seeds of the New England colonies started to take form. (A brief note to distinguish between the Pilgrims and the Puritans: the Pilgrims had “separated” from the Church of England but were still members of the Puritan religion while Puritans at large were mostly still linked with the Church of England and called for strict and conservative reforms from within).
Onto the feast
So now we know about the Pilgrims, what about the turkey? Why is it a part of Thanksgiving? Although turkeys were indeed prominent and native to America, it may or may not have been eaten by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 or even the later feast held in 1623. Over time it may have been substituted being such a large bird found here in America to eat and has since graced our tables and has become a major iconic symbol for the holiday. An historical note of interest is that Benjamin Franklin actually proposed for the national bird to represent the new United States of America to be none other than a turkey. (Despite all of its delicious properties are we not glad we settled with the eagle instead, let Tom Turkey be the mascot of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day…but I get ahead of myself!)
Days of Fast and Thanksgiving and other Harvest Festivals
Now our American Thanksgiving holiday is not the only “thanksgiving” that has been celebrated before or since. We just refer to the historical event as a prominent recorded Thanksgiving Day which took place on American shores. Others had in fact occurred in the 16th and early 17th centuries by the Spanish and the British colonists who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. Also, the Puritans held their own “days of thanksgiving” with prayer and fasting as part of their religion. Our first American Thanksgiving was in essence a mixture of a harvest festival and a religious day of prayer. This is not something unique to the first settlers of America but indeed was practiced by our Native American ancestors to thank nature for her bounty and is a common festival that was and still is celebrated around the world with the end of the harvest season such as the one celebrated to honor the goddess Demeter in ancient Greece or even the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Remember the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated in China from the September holiday issue, it was also a harvest festival). Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving Day similar to the one celebrated in the United States that takes place a month before on October 12th every year. But the question still remains, how did we make Thanksgiving a “national holiday”?
Stay tuned to find out more!