150 Years of Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England” Harper’s Weekly, 1870. Courtesy the New York Historical Society.

Did you know that 2013 is the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving?

I know what you’re thinking. What about the Pilgrims? Plymouth? 1621? Duh!

We all know the story–or at least, some version of it. After a difficult first year of settlement, the Puritans of Plymouth celebrated a successful harvest. They were joined by the nearby Wampanoag Indians, in recognition of their tenuous (and temporary) alliance. Here’s a primary source account of what happened on that day, from original settler Edward Winslow, written December 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 fruits 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 amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst 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 on 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.” (source)

For three days, the two groups partied together: playing games, firing guns, and eating. And what was on the table? We know there was venison, brought by sachem Massasoit and his men; we know there was wild fowl like turkey, shot by the Puritans. There was corn, too, from the harvest, probably prepared as a “pottage,” a thick soup. And since they were near the ocean, it’s likely they would have had an assortment of edibles from the water, like oysters, lobsters and (everyone’s favorite) eels.

Most of the modern Thanksgiving legend was developed during a surge of Americana nostalgia after the Revolutionary War. The “pilgrims,” by the way, referred to themselves as Puritans. The use of the word Pilgrim to describe the early colonists seems to have evolved out of  Forefather’s Day, a sort of proto-thanksgiving celebrated in December. A line from Plymouth colony governor William Bradford was quoted during the 1798 speechifying – “…they knew they were pilgrimes…” and a song was composed using the same word. The term caught on afterwards. (thanks, wikipedia!)

Additionally, the Puritans did not think of the 1621 feast as a day of “Thanksgiving,” which was a specific holy day declared during events of God’s divine intervention (end to droughts, etc). In an 1841 books called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, scholar Alexander Young footnotes Winslow’s letter by calling it “the first Thanksgiving,” which is the first reference found referring to the event of 1621 by that name.

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Thanksgiving at a New England Farm House, Harper’s Weekly, 1871. Courtesy The New York Historical Society. On the table, they’re cutting into an immense chicken pie. Also, take note of the celery holder.

Thanksgiving, and food that accompanies it, did not evolve into the holiday we know today until the mid-19th century.  Over the years, Forefather’s Day sort of merged with annual harvest festival traditions and became a modern Thanksgiving.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. It was a popular writer of the time, Sarah Hale, who edited an even more popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, who petitioned Lincoln to make the holiday official. “Would the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day,” Hale said in an editorial, “Then, though the members of the same family be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the day.”

A lovely sentiment, when you consider that our country was divided by war.

It was Hale’s magazine that also released an avalanche of holiday recipes every year, instructing housewives on how to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner. As though making up for our Puritanical forefathers, a Victorian holiday could include: Oyster soup, Turkey with Savory Stuffing, a Sirloin of Beef, a leg of Pork, a loin of Mutton, Gravy, celery, a goose, two ducks, Chicken Pie, cranberry sauce, pickles: sweet, mangoes (stuffed and pickled young melons), chow-chow, bell peppers, peaches, or cucumbers; mashed potatoes and turnips, cabbage, canned tomatoes and corn, baked sweet potatoes, boiled onions, fruit preserves (like grape jelly or stewed peaches), butter, wheat bread, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, custards, rich cakes (with yeast, fruits, and many eggs), Indian pudding, fresh fruits and sweetmeats (candies), cheese. (source and source)

Today, I think the true beauty of the Thanksgiving feast lies in the side dishes. The turkey in omnipresent, but what is served alongside it makes every family’s celebration individual. So what’s you’re Thanksgiving like? Is it traditional New England fare, or does it reflect your own regionalism or ethnicity? And if you were going to jazz up your holiday table with a 19th Century side dish from the menu above, which one would it be?

 

4 Responses to “150 Years of Thanksgiving”


  • I think I could stand to have oysters as part of Thanksgiving! When I was a kid, we usually has roast beef and roast pork at Thanksgiving, instead of turkey, because we raised those animals. Now I make ducks, for my husband and I and we celebrate the weekend before, because people who work in kitchens, work on Thanksgiving.

  • My grandmother’s Thanksgiving table always included potato & noodle kugel (catered — she hated to cook). I think kugel is an essential part of the feast.

    We rarely have turkey because my guy would rather make anything else, such as venison, suckling pig, or goose.

  • I would definitely dress up mine with chow-chow! Our family saves the oysters for Christmas.

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