Thanksgiving Day: Then and Now [Video]


November 1621, was when the very first Thanksgiving dinner took place after the Pilgrims came to America. Today, the tradition of a holiday meal continues but for very different reasons. On Nov. 24, 2016, many American’s decided to celebrate the traditional annual holiday with a large turkey dinner, spending time with family, and watching football.

In 1621, the first settlers were celebrating their first successful harvest and invited the local Wampanoag Indian tribe to their celebration. The country’s first “Thanksgiving” was different than today’s time-honored tradition of turkey, yams, and pumpkin pie.

It was not just eating a big family dinner while watching football. It was a festival that lasted for three days. Edward Winslow, the colony’s historian, kept a journal in which he recorded that the Wampanoag Indians brought their new neighbors a gift of five freshly killed deer. The wild turkey was not part of the meal even though there was an abundance of them. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, sent four men out on a hunting expedition for fowl in preparation for the festival. The ancient settlers regularly feasted on swan, geese, and ducks, thus one or all of these birds were probably on the table. Bread stuffing was not thought of in the 1600s, so it is more likely onions, herbs, or nuts were used to provide flavor to the birds. Thanksgiving

In more recent times turkey dinners have been blamed for people feeling sleepy after eating because it contains the amino acid tryptophan. The carbohydrate enriched side dishes and deserts are the more likely cause for the tryptophan entering the brain. According to the health guide of the N.Y. Times, a possible side effect of consuming too many carbs is obesity. 

The festival, referred to as the “first Thanksgiving,” was in celebration of the very first successful autumn harvest, which the Pilgrims and Wampanoag planted and reaped together. It is known from past records that corn was bountiful and one of the side dishes at the celebration. Among other possible vegetables were cabbage, lettuce, onions, spinach, beans, and possibly peas. In the 1600s, corn was taken off the cob and mashed into a cornmeal, boiled, pounded flat, and made into a porridge. Cranberries were among several fruits that were plentiful for the native Wampanoag. Therefore, it is quite possible that it was served at the festival as a fruit, not a sauce or relish. By the time November rolled around, the sugar supply was scarce and boiling cranberries with sugar for meats was not done for at least another half-century.

The Thanksgiving holiday culture of today is much different from the celebration of the autumn harvest of the first settlers. Today’s tradition generally calls for families and friends gathering around the table and giving thanks. After eating, it is often a time to relax while watching the football game or spend time catching up with dinner guests. This is much different from the festivities of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians.

However Thanksgiving was celebrated this year, it was very different from when it began. President George Washington issued a decree for the U.S. to celebrate the first Thanksgiving holiday in 1789, on November 26. It was to be a celebration to give thanks to the victorious end of the war of Independence and for the enactment of the U.S. constitution. Presidents John Adams and James Mason also nominated certain days of thanks during their administrations, but it was not until 1817 when New York would officially approve an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Several states would follow but each would celebrate on different days. The American writer Sara Josepha Hale, who became a famous author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” ran a campaign from 1827-1857, to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wanted the menu to consist of stuffing, turkey, and pumpkin pie. She wrote to many presidents and governors and wrote editorials on the subject.

It was President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, while the country was in the middle of the Civil War, who heard her request and made a decree for Americans to ask God to watch over and care for the ones who lost husbands, children, and parents. He designated on the last Thursday of November to be the Thanksgiving feast. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (F.D.R.), in 1939, moved the holiday to the third Thursday, so retailers of the great depression would have more time to make money for the Christmas shopping holiday. This was a highly criticized move, and in 1941, F.D.R. moved it back to the last Thursday, by signing a declaration.

Another Thanksgiving tradition was started in 1989, by President George H.W. Bush, when he gave an official pardon to a turkey. Since then every November, the president has given a reprieve to one or two turkeys granting them retirement on a farm. This famous holiday has been through many changes since the beginning, from what foods would be served to the reason the country celebrates.

By Katherine Miller

Sources: Thanksgiving 2016 First Thanksgiving Meal
The NY Times: Health Guide

Inline Image Courtesy of sea turtle’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top and Feature Image Courtesy of madabandon’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License