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22 November
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HistoryPodcast 34 – Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is an annual holiday observed in the United States and Canada. The most common view of its origin is that it was to give thanks to the Judeo-Christian God for the bounty of the autumn harvest. In this episode we will discuss some common misconceptions and the origins of this holiday celebration. This is also the last episode before I go on vacation. I will be back the week of December 5th.

HistoryPodcast 34 – Thanksgiving.mp3 12:24 – 11.5MB

Links:

History Channel’s Thanksgiving Information

Wikipedia article

Plimoth Plantation and its Thanksgiving page

Further Reading:

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong — by James W. Loewen

In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is now known as the first Thanksgiving.

But first a little background with the help of James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. Lowen reminds us that out of the 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower only about 35 of them were Pilgrims as we understand the word today. The rest were ordinary folk seeking fortunes in the new Virgina Colony.

Why did the settlers chose Plymouth? Lowen explains that, “The Pilgrims chose Plymouth because of its beautful clear fields, recently planted in corn, and it’s useful harbor and brook of fresh water. The perfect site for a town. Thats because it was until the plague (not the black plague, that was in Euope, here we are talking about the plague that all the previous visitors to North America gave the Indians). In fact this was the home town of Squanto. “One Colonist in 1622 noted that This bay werein we live, in former time hath lived about 2,000 Indians.

While we are on the subject of Squanto, how did that guy even know English? “According to Fedinandi Gorges, around 1605 a British captain stole Squanto, who was then still a boy, along with four others, and took them to England. There Squanto spent nine years, three in the employ of Gorges. At length, Gorges helped Squanto arrange passage back to Massachusetts. Some historians doubt that Squanto was among the five Indians stolen in 1605. All sources agree however, that in 1614 a British slave raider seized Squanto and two dozen fellow Indians and sold them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto oescaped from slavery, escaped from Spain, and made his way back to Enlgand. After trying to get home via Newfoundland, in 1619 he talked Thomas Demer into taking him alson on this next trip to Cape Cod. When Squanto did return to his town in Massachusetts he found that all of the people in his village had died about 2 years ago.

The Pilgrims did not introduce the tradition of Thanksgiving; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Although Geroge Washington did set aside days for national Tahnksgiving, our celebrations date back only to 1863. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Not until the 1890s did that Pilgrims even get associated with Thanksgiving. For that matter no one even used the term Pilgrim until the 1870s.

A very interesting story from Loewen’s chapter on Thanksgiving was that in “…1970 the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoags to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. Frank James was selected, but first he had to show a copy of his speech to the white people in charge of the ceremony. When they saw what he had written, they would not allow him to read it. James had written:

Today is a time to celebrate for you…but it is not a time for celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my people…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before the had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat and beans…Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…,little knowing that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases we caught from them…Although out way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts…What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”

What Was Actually on the Menu of the first Thanksgiving?

Historians aren’t completely certain about the full bounty, but it’s safe to say the pilgrims weren’t gobbling up pumpkin pie or playing with their mashed potatoes. The only two items that historians know for sure were on the menu are venison and wild fowl, which are mentioned in primary sources. The most detailed description of the “First Thanksgiving” comes from Edward Winslow from A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Did you know that lobster, seal and swans were on the Pilgrims’ menu? Learn more…

Seventeenth Century Table Manners

The pilgrims didn’t use forks; they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used for cooking but wasn’t available on the table.

In the seventeenth century, a person’s social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. People didn’t tend to sample everything that was on the table (as we do today), they just ate what was closest to them.

Serving in the seventeenth century was very different from serving today. People weren’t served their meals individually. Foods were served onto the table and then people took the food from the table and ate it. All the servers had to do was move the food from the place where it was cooked onto the table.

Pilgrims didn’t eat in courses as we do today. All of the different types of foods were placed on the table at the same time and people ate in any order they chose. Sometimes there were two courses, but each of them would contain both meat dishes, puddings, and sweets.

More Meat, Less Vegetables

Our modern Thanksgiving repast is centered around the turkey, but that certainly wasn’t the case at the pilgrims’s feasts. Their meals included many different meats. Vegetable dishes, one of the main components of our modern celebration, didn’t really play a large part in the feast mentality of the seventeenth century. Depending on the time of year, many vegetables weren’t available to the colonists.

The pilgrims probably didn’t have pies or anything sweet at the harvest feast. They had brought some sugar with them on the Mayflower but by the time of the feast, the supply had dwindled. Also, they didn’t have an oven so pies and cakes and breads were not possible at all. The food that was eaten at the harvest feast would have seemed fatty by 1990’s standards, but it was probably more healthy for the pilgrims than it would be for people today. The colonists were more active and needed more protein. Heart attack was the least of their worries. They were more concerned about the plague and pox.

Surprisingly Spicy Cooking

People tend to think of English food at bland, but, in fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for meats. In the seventeenth century, cooks did not use proportions or talk about teaspoons and tablespoons. Instead, they just improvised. The best way to cook things in the seventeenth century was to roast them. Among the pilgrims, someone was assigned to sit for hours at a time and turn the spit to make sure the meat was evenly done.

Since the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians had no refrigeration in the seventeenth century, they tended to dry a lot of their foods to preserve them. They dried Indian corn, hams, fish, and herbs.

Dinner for Breakfast: Pilgrim Meals

The biggest meal of the day for the colonists was eaten at noon and it was called noonmeat or dinner. The housewives would spend part of their morning cooking that meal. Supper was a smaller meal that they had at the end of the day. Breakfast tended to be leftovers from the previous day’s noonmeat.

In a pilgrim household, the adults sat down to eat and the children and servants waited on them. The foods that the colonists and Wampanoag Indians ate were very similar, but their eating patterns were different. While the colonists had set eating patterns–breakfast, dinner, and supper–the Wampanoags tended to eat when they were hungry and to have pots cooking throughout the day.

Myths

Myth: The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.

Fact: The first feast wasn’t repeated, so it wasn’t the beginning of a tradition. In fact, the colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621

harvest feast–dancing, singing secular songs, playing games–wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.

Myth: The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.

Fact: The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. Unlike our modern holiday, it was three days long. The event was based on English harvest festivals, which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually the custom prevailed in New England of annually celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest.

During the American Revolution a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated it with the November 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).

Myth: The pilgrims wore only black and white clothing. They had buckles on their hats, garments, and shoes.

Fact: Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century and black and white were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions. Women typically dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and gray, while men wore clothing in white, beige, black, earthy green, and brown.

Myth: The pilgrims brought furniture with them on the Mayflower.

Fact: The only furniture that the pilgrims brought on the Mayflower was chests and boxes. They constructed wooden furniture once they settled in Plymouth.

Myth: The Mayflower was headed for Virginia, but due to a navigational mistake it ended up in Cape Cod Massachusetts.

Fact: The Pilgrims were in fact planning to settle in Virginia, but not the modern-day state of Virginia. They were part of the Virginia Company, which had the rights to most of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The pilgrims had intended to go to the Hudson River region in New York State, which would have been considered “Northern Virginia,” but they landed in Cape Cod instead. Treacherous seas prevented them from venturing further south.

Thanksgiving is an annual holiday observed in the United States and Canada. The most common view of its origin is that it was to give thanks to the Judeo-Christian God for the bounty of the autumn harvest. In this episode we will discuss some common misconceptions and the origins of this holiday celebration. This is also the last episode before I go on vacation. I will be back the week of December 5th.

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