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The Real First Thanksgiving

Andrew Smith, editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink has written a piece for us which helps us truly understand the origins of Thanksgiving. Despite its solemn origins we hope you have a truly wonderful (and apple pie filled) holiday.

Every American knows the story of the First Thanksgiving: Seeking religious freedom, the Pilgrims established a colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Native Americans taught them how to plant corn and hunt. When the crops were harvested, the Indians joined the Pilgrims at the First Thanksgiving by jointly gobbling up turkeys, saucing cranberries, mashing corn, and squashing pumpkins to make pies. It was such a memorable event that Americans have honored this day ever since, or so goes the story.

No one would be more surprised at this modern day story than would the Pilgrims. food-and-drink.jpgThey did observe many days of thanksgiving, but these were solemn religious occasions celebrated with serious prayer giving thanks for specific events– such as a good harvest or a victory in battle. Engaging in frivolous activity, such as preparing a fancy meal, was not on the holy day’s agenda. The first time that anyone associated thanksgiving dinner with the Pilgrims was in 1841– almost two centuries after the purported event. At the time, the Pilgrims were no longer around to defend themselves against what to them would have been a scurrilous charge: cooking a big dinner on a religious day!

The real “traditional” thanksgiving dinner was invented in New England in the late eighteenth century. It was a family oriented day, featuring a dinner with the turkey as central attractions with supporting roles assigned to gravies, stuffings, potatoes, sauces and pies.

The driving force behind making Thanksgiving a national holiday was a New Englander named Sarah Josepha Hale. She wrote a highly idealized account of a fictional Thanksgiving dinner in her novel Northwood (1827). As editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, she commenced a campaign to make it a national holiday. For years, Hale published editorials and penned letters to state and territorial governors, requesting each to proclaim the last Thursday in November “Thanksgiving Day.” Success was within reach in 1860, when thirty three states and territories celebrated Thanksgiving on the same day, but her campaign floundered as the Civil War engulfed the nation. Hoping to save Thanksgiving, she requested that President Lincoln declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Lincoln did just that a few months later to celebrate the North’s military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.

Throughout Hale’s seventeen year campaign, she made no mention of the Pilgrims. After the Civil War, Hale began to extol the Pilgrim’s association with the First Thanksgiving and proclaimed it true. Other writers quickly followed her lead: The loveable Pilgrims with their funky clothes and immense muskets frivolously enjoying themselves at the fun filled First Thanksgiving were just too much of a good story for writers to pass up. It blossomed in magazines and books and spawned a vast children’s literature.

The rapid adoption of the First Thanksgiving myth also had much to do with the arriving tidal wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. At the time, the public education system’s major task was to create a common, easily understood history of America for immigrant children. The Pilgrims were an ideal symbol for America’s origin, and so they were imbedded in school textbooks, and this immediately accelerated acceptance of the historical fakelore behind the holiday. That Jamestown had a better historical claim was complicated by the fact that American slavery began at Jamestown, which made it an unacceptable location for the nation’s birthplace, especially in the immediate aftermath of the bloody Civil War.

Thanksgiving has become Americanized in ways undreamt by its creators. Immigrant groups have added new traditions and ingredients to thanksgiving’s culinary stew. Businesses have commercialized the day as the launch date for the Christmas selling season. College coaches have selected this day to demonstrate their prowess of their football teams and are thankful when their games are televised nationally. Others use the day to complain about gluttony and obesity or poverty and hunger. Vegetarians and animal rights activists campaign against the turkey holocaust. Still others have chosen not to celebrate it at all. Some Native Americans, for instance, proclaim it “A National Day of Mourning.”

However Americans respond to it, Thanksgiving remains one of our most important holidays, when millions of Americans will sit down with family members to enjoy dinner together. It is truly a wonderful America’s holiday– even without the Pilgrim fakelore.

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