Since the day the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrated what we consider to be the first Thanksgiving in 1621, we’ve created an image of that occasion considerably at odds with what probably occurred. Here are some examples of how that long-ago celebration differed from our modern perception of it:
- Thanksgiving did not originate with the Pilgrims; it was an ancient historical custom they would have been familiar with from England. What the Pilgrims were celebrating was really not a “thanksgiving,” which to them was an occasion for religious piety and solemnity, but rather a harvest festival, full of (secular) revelry such as feasting, dancing, singing, sports, and games which the Pilgrims would have considered completely inappropriate activities for a religious observance.
- The only items we can be certain were on the table during that first Thanksgiving were venison and some type of wild fowl, as described by Edward Winslow in his 1621 Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth:
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.
Although contemporary accounts of the first Thanksgiving mention “wild Turkies,” the Pilgrims and Wampanoag likely feasted on a variety of other fowl, such as geese, ducks, and partridges, and even birds we no longer commonly consider as food, such as cranes, swans, and eagles.
Corn on the cob was unlikely to have been on the menu, since Indian corn was primarily kept dried by that time of year and used for grinding up into meal. The pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce we’re familiar with were absent from the table as well, since the colonists had no supply of sugar, and wheat flour may have been scarce. (The celebrants might have made something like a pudding from boiled pumpkin sweetened with honey or syrup, however.) Potatoes (mashed or otherwise) were probably also absent, as they were not common in that area at the time. Although we don’t traditionally associate seafood with Thanksgiving, the colonists may have included cod, eel, clams, lobster, and even seal in their feast.
- The Pilgrims didn’t dress in black-and-white clothing with large buckles on their hats and shoes for Thanksgiving, as they are now commonly depicted. Pilgrims garbed themselves in such black and white clothing only on Sunday and other formal or solemn occasions, and large ornamental buckles didn’t come into fashion until much later in the 1600s (and were likely to have been eschewed by the Pilgrims as a frivolity in any case).
- Due to a poor harvest the next year (and an influx of settlers in subsequent years), the pilgrims never celebrated another Thanksgiving, and it remained an irregularly-observed holiday in America for more than two centuries. The first time all the states in the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving together was in 1777, but that was a one-time only affair prompted by the Revolutionary War. Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday celebrated on the last Thursday in November in 1863, and Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November in 1939.