The First Thanksgiving.
We all know the story, right? We heard it in school, when we were kids.
We learned, in 1621, after a brutal winter, the Pilgrims were nice enough to invite their friends, the Indians, over to share in their great meal of thanksgiving, following a bountiful harvest.
We dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians for plays and recreated the Thanksgiving feast in the classroom. We made Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, cornucopia, and Mayflower ships, all out of construction paper.
In our homes, we ate turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, so we could take part in the tradition that had been passed down since that First Thanksgiving.
It’s what we all knew to be true, right? It’s what I was taught. But you know what?
It’s all based on myths.
As my children’s teacher, it’s my job to make sure they do their own research on Thanksgiving. This year, since we are studying early American History, it’s a perfect time to let them dig deeper into the history of the early settlers and this national holiday.
Three Major Thanksgiving Myths
The Pilgrims prepared the feast in order to give thanks for deliverance from multiple hardships, as well as the bountiful harvest.
“Days of thanksgiving” did occur, but they were somber, religious events. When something amazing happened, like being saved from a drought, a day of prayer and thanksgiving would follow.
The three-day feast resembled more of a harvest festival, with its food, games, dancing, and general revelry. Both the Indians and Pilgrims were familiar with these events, traditionally celebrated during the fall, when the harvests were plentiful.
Of course the Pilgrims were thankful. It had been a rough road for them since landing in Massachusetts. They most likely gave prayers of thanks during the feast, however, that was not the main reason for the gathering.
Our Thanksgiving tables are a reflection of the First Thanksgiving.
Actually, many of the foods we traditionally eat, thinking they come from that first feast, were not served.
In the limited documentation from that time, there is a mention of “fowls” being prepared, but not specifically turkey. It more likely would have been duck or goose, perhaps even swan. Even if turkey did grace the table, it would have been wild turkey, a far cry from the bird we prepare today.
Those potatoes that we love so much? They were not growing in Plymouth in 1621, nor were they a part of the English or Wampanoag diet.
Pumpkin pie? Nope. The first record we find of pumpkin pie comes years later. Plus, as a struggling community, there would have been little to no sugar or butter (not to mention flour) to make such desserts. Pumpkin was probably served, but it was likely made into a type of custard.
Every year as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we’re carrying on a tradition that has been happening since the first one in 1621.
An annual gathering of the Pilgrims and Indians did not occur in subsequent years.
In fact, we did not come together as a nation to celebrate Thanksgiving until George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving in 1777. However, not every president felt so strongly, so the national proclamations ended in the early 1800s.
States and territories continued with their own traditions, but America was not celebrating Thanksgiving as a nation.
However, with a weary and divided country, Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation that the last Thursday of November should be set aside for a national holiday.
Questions for Teens to Research and Ponder
- What was most likely served during the 3 day festival in 1621?
- Who was Sarah Josepha Hale and what is her connection to Thanksgiving?
- What was Franklin Roosevelt’s role in Thanksgiving?
- Why do Canada and America celebrate Thanksgiving on different days?
- What other countries celebrate a national Thanksgiving?
- What do you think the Thanksgiving holiday means to Native Americans?
Consider having your older students turn this research into a paper or a presentation to give to friends and family.
Tomorrow, join me as I share about traditions, specifically Thanksgiving traditions.
What were your thoughts when you found out that the First Thanksgiving was different from what you read in your history textbooks?
For more hands-on activities to help you celebrate Thanksgiving with your family, check out our series this week, Celebrating Thanksgiving with Teens.