After a difficult journey on the Mayflower, and an even worse winter, where only half of the original Pilgrims survived, the first year in the Plymouth Colony was exceedingly difficult.  They arrived with no provisions and no housing.  They were unprepared for the severity of the winter that was coming and they succumbed to the “General Sickness”.

The first planting season of 1621 brought a large corn harvest, and the settlers invited their Wampanoag tribe friends to join them for a three-day celebration (one of the few examples of harmony between settlers and Native Americans). Unfortunately, there is no record of the exact menu, but through journals and historians, we have a good idea what the feast probably included.

As historical records reported, four settlers went “fowling,” likely for ducks and geese, while the Wampanoag attendees came bearing five deer, or venison. Though there were no potatoes to pair with the meat, it’s likely the settlers enjoyed cabbage, onions, and of course corn, which inspired the celebration.  The Pilgrims also enjoyed a lot of squash – especially pumpkin, which became an essential ingredient in early American cooking.  So as you can see, this was hardly the feast that we think of today.  In fact, the feast was merely a harvest celebration, similar to what the Pilgrims were used to in England.

Today, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. The official holiday was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (and approved by Congress in 1941).  Before that, it was the last Thursday in November, as designated by former President Abraham Lincoln. But sometimes the last Thursday would turn out to be the fifth Thursday of the month. This falls too close to Christmas, leaving businesses less than a month’s time to cope with the two big holidays, hence the change. But irrespective of the date of celebration, Thanksgiving Day has been observed in the U.S. since 1863.

Today’s Thanksgiving dinners are a far cry from what the Pilgrims had.  A typical dinner will include:

And this is just a generic meal.

The United States is a nation of immigrants and each group has added their ethnic food to the Thanksgiving table.  For instance, many tables would not be complete without rice, or lamb, or sausage, or ham, or pasta, depending on the customs of the ancestors of the celebrants.  If a Thanksgiving dinner is not the norm for your country, get with your American friends this month, or your Canadian friends next October, and join us in celebrating Thanksgiving.

Published November 1, 2011

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