Celebrating the Bounty of Good Things
The last Thursday in November is a day our nation comes together, slowing hectic lives and celebrating time-honored traditions, a day to gather family and friends in a meal, reflecting what we have to be thankful for, whether those things be small or large. The Thanksgiving dinner symbolizes the bounty of good things and not just the food that we have been blessed with. It is a day in which new immigrants and the young learn to become part of the United States fabric while elderly and long-standing citizens pay homage to their past history and remembrances. Although the basic meal and celebration is similar for all, side dishes and activities differ from family to family. In every household it is a day eagerly anticipated, a day when waistlines become constricting and when, inevitably, at least one guest falls asleep watching a long football game after dinner.
People have long believed that spirits or gods controlled the outcome of their harvest and paying homage to the harvest gods became an important part of cultures. The Greeks honored Demeter, goddess of grains, at an autumn festival, Thesmosphoria. The Romans held the fall festival Cerelia to honor Ceres, goddess of corn, offering pigs and fruits to her. Harvest festivals throughout the world continued well after the fall of the Roman Empire. In England, The Harvest Home celebration was held in the fall after the fields had been harvested. The Puritans transformed and brought the fall harvest celebration to North America where it was eventually transformed into the holiday we know today.
In 1609, the Puritans left England for Holland to flee religious prosecution. The Puritans became worried their children would come to adopt the ways of the Dutch, which they considered frivolous and so they brokered a deal with the Merchant Adventurers, a group of English investors, to provide the sea passage to America in exchange for seven years work. In America they would be able to start their own community. When they landed, it was November, too late to grow crops, and 50 of the original 110 survived the subsequent harsh winter.
The Pilgrims were concerned about the local Native Americans, but the nearby tribe was peaceful and on March 16, 1621 a tribe-member came into their village and said to the Puritan's surprise, "Welcome." His name was Samoset and he had learned English from fishermen off the cost of Massachusetts. He lived in a village along with Squanto, another native, who also spoke English and had spent some time in England after being rescued by English slavers. Squanto taught the Pilgrims invaluable lessons about the natural resources of their new land, teaching them how to tap the maple trees for syrup, which plants were edible, how to grow corn since the wheat they had brought from England would not grow in the rocky soil.
By the next fall, the Puritans successfully harvested enough corn for storage, fruit to dry, fish to salt and meat to cure for the long winter ahead. Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be hosted by the Puritans with the natives as their honored guests. The feast lasted three days with games and displays of hunting skill. During the following year a bountiful harvest was not produced so Thanksgiving was not held. The third year, there was a severe drought and Bradford declared a day of fasting and praying; shortly thereafter it rained and a day of thanksgiving was proclaimed.
These original Thanksgivings and subsequent ones held by the Puritans were holy days. In addition to the food and games, most of the day was spent in church service. The Puritans had long since abandoned celebrating many typical Christian holidays such as the saints days and Christmas which they rejected for being as blasphemous as holidays with pagan roots like Harvest Home. The Puritans believed ritual honoring of individuals served only to legitimize an ecclesiastical hierarchy, something fundamentally un-Christian. Thanksgivings, however, eased the human need for celebration and joy while respecting their strict religious beliefs. The holiday of Thanksgiving spread throughout the thirteen colonies and was heartily adopted by other Puritans and immigrants who had traveled across the seas to find a new life. Although people had long given thanks and held harvest festivals, these celebrations became the first true North American holiday.
The first Thanksgivings were not well documented so it is not precisely known what was served. The dinner was more than likely eaten outdoors since no building would have been big enough to accommodate all of the Puritans and the 90 tribe-members present. The menu probably included fish, shellfish, dried fruit, corn, berries, fowl and venison. Since it was the British who were in charge of cooking the meal, it can be safely assumed that they adapted their cuisine to use these new foods. Thirteen Pilgrim women were responsible for all of the cooking. British cooking placed the emphasis on meats, both game and fowl, while wheat or corn products and fruits were less important. Sweet foods were rare and would have only been prepared for special banquets such as Thanksgiving.
Venison would have been the main game meat for the meal and, as Edward Winslow documented in 1621, the tribe had brought five deer to the feast. The fowl would have included geese, ducks, perhaps a swan and a wild turkey, quite small compared with today's average size. Some spices, reserved from the Mayflower voyage, would have been added to the dishes presented to the more important people at the dinner. There were no dairy products, as cows had not yet been brought over from Europe. Every dish, sweet or savory, would have been served at the same time, not in courses. By the 1640's, Thanksgivings across New England were proclaimed almost yearly but not without debate. Some ministers and governors felt that yearly celebrations would instill a feeling of overconfidence in God's generosity. By the 1660's, Thanksgivings were firmly rooted in society and no governor tried to exclude the day from the calendar.
The day was still arranged around a series of church services. By the early 1700's, many communities ceased the afternoon service so people did not have to walk miles in the cold four times in one day. Since there was more time not dedicated to prayer or work, games, dancing, ice skating, and sport became an integral part of the afternoon. Later, as people began to move far and wide throughout the colonies, the annual pilgrimage home began to take form.
Outside New England, Thanksgiving was not widely celebrated. As the dinner portion of the day grew in importance and the harvest was usually bountiful, more pies were baked and more meats were roasted. Since the early Colonialists did not celebrate Christmas, some of the usual treats were sorely missed and so plum pudding and mince pies became an essential part of the Thanksgiving menu, just as turkey pie and pumpkin pie had become. In 1705, the town of Colchester, Connecticut postponed Thanksgiving in order to wait for a shipment of molasses so the indispensable pumpkin pie could be made.
Thanksgiving proclamations became vehicles for governors and ministers to endorse the Revolutionary War and the preservation of rights. In 1777, a national day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed for the 13 colonies after the colonial army defeated General John Burgoyne in the Hudson Valley. This put Thanksgiving well on its way to becoming an annual holiday. Even during the height of the Revolution when many families had to do without certain foods, Thanksgiving was celebrated from New Hampshire to Georgia. Because of the war colonialists had no access to raisins for mince pie or beef for roasts. But celery was just being introduced to the colonies from England and it was one of the first vegetables to be eaten raw.
A 1779 letter from a schoolgirl in Boston reads,
All the baking of pies and cakes was done at our house and we had the big oven heated and filled twice each day for three days before it was all done, and everything was Good, though we did have to do without some things that ought to be used. Neither Love nor Money could buy Raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits did almost as well . . Of course we could have no Roast Beef. None of us have tasted any beef this three years back. But, Mayquittymaw's Hunters were able to get us a fine red Deer, so that we had a good haunch of venison on each Table. These were balanced by huge Chines of Roast Pork at the other ends of the Tables. Then there was one big Roast Turkey and on the other a Goose and two big Pigeon Pasties [pies]. Then there was an abundance of good vegetables of all the old Sorts and which I do not believe you have yet seen. . . It is called Sellery [celery] and you eat it without cooking."
©2002 Gabriella True for SeniorWomenWeb