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The Origin And Meaning Behind Thanksgiving

As fall is in full swing, it paves a beautiful path for one of our most cherished holidays. Thanksgiving is when we stop and give thanks for our loved ones, health, home, and the necessities with which we are blessed. We have been told the stories of the settlers landing at Plymouth Rock, befriending the natives that they found here, and sharing a meal of two cultures and people. Putting differences aside and breaking bread together, different cultures from different backgrounds, coming together to celebrate humanity and our similarities. How did the Pilgrims and Native Americans start the tradition of this meal that we now celebrate with our own family and friends? Let’s dive into some insight into the first Thanksgiving and see how our practices about the holiday began and evolved into what we practice today.


The Road To The First Thanksgiving

The origins of how Thanksgiving even came to be date back to September 1620, when a small ship called The Mayflower left the harbor of Plymouth, England, with a group of dreamers, those hopeful for a better life, headed off to discover a new world. These people yearned for religious freedom, prosperity, and the hopes of being able to own land and cultivate their futures. A very long, chaotic sixty-six days at sea culminated in them landing off the coast of Massachusetts Bay, naming the place where they landed Plymouth, in honor of where they came from, and the first rocks on to which they stepped as Plymouth Rock, as it still stands today.  The first winter in their new home, the Colonists mostly stayed aboard the Mayflower. It wasn’t until early spring 1621 that they finally decided to move ashore and were surprised when they received a visitor from the Abenaki tribe, who surprised them either further with the fact that he could greet them in English. Another visitor came from the Pawtuxet tribe, a man named Squanto, who had earlier been kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English sea captain. Luckily he was able to escape and seek refuge in London, where he was able to return home via another exploring group of Europeans seeking new land.

Squanto was a good friend to the colonists, teaching them how to catch fish, get syrup and sap from maple trees, how to grow corn, and avoid poisonous plants. He brought them together with the Wampanoag tribe, an alliance, and friendship that lasted more than 50 years, going down in history as one of the most peaceful friendships between Native Americans and the colonists.


The First Thanksgiving Feast

The Pilgrims produced their first successful harvest of corn in November 1621 and decided to hold a feast to celebrate. The colonists were there, as well as their allies, and they included the Wampanoag people. This was the first “official” Thanksgiving, though it wouldn’t be given that title until many years later. This celebration feast lasted for three days. There is no menu recorded of everything they ate, but Edward Winslow records a historical account of the festive occasion and what happened. Winslow was the official documentarian for the Pilgrims. Between his written accounts and what historians know about food and food preparation back in that time, they have come up with what is a historically accurate depiction of what was most likely on the menu at the first feast of Thanksgiving

  • Wild turkey, ducks, geese, and swabs
  • Deer/venison
  • Vegetables – Corn, lettuce, onions, beans, spinach, peas, cabbage, pumpkins, squash, and carrots
  • Fruit – Grapes, raspberries, cranberries, gooseberries, blueberries, grapes, and plums
  • Seafood – Lobsters, mussels, bass, clams, oysters, and eels
  • Desserts – Desserts were not really an option for the pilgrims. They had no oven in which to bake, and most of the sugar that they brought over on the Mayflower was gone entirely at this point. It would be another fifty-plus year before cranberries would be cooked down with sugar to resemble what we now know as cranberry sauce. The closest thing they had to dessert was hollowing out the insides of a pumpkin, adding in honey, spices, and milk to make a custard, then roasting the whole pumpkins in ashes.


Thanksgiving Moving Forward

Jumping forward in history, we see how Thanksgiving was on the path to becoming a national holiday, recognizing the significance of the hard work, sacrifice, and forbearance of our pilgrim heritage:

  • George Washington issued a proclamation in 1789 stating that the nation recognize Thanksgiving as a time to show gratitude for the victory in our war of independence
  • New York became the first state to adopt Thanksgiving as a holiday in 1817
  • Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation in 1863 for Thanksgiving to be observed by all Americans on the last Thursday in November, which lasted until 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week, hoping that it would boost the economy during the Great Depression. This move by FDR was not met with favor, so in 1941 he returned the observance of Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November.


Thanksgiving Celebrates Who We Are

We’ve looked at the history behind Thanksgiving;  where, when, why, and how it started, and the impact that very first meal of gratitude has on us today. The pilgrims wanted to celebrate their very first successful harvest in their new world, and they included those who helped them achieve that accomplishment. A meal that celebrated the pursuit of a better life, outpouring with gratitude and acknowledging the people that played a role in that pursuit of a dream. If you stop and ponder the time in which they lived, the conditions that they faced, and the overwhelming hardships they had to overcome to make this life a reality, we really aren’t much different than the pilgrims. Obviously, our technology, abundant resources, easy means of transportation, and way of life are incomparable, but the human aspect is still very much the same. We gather with family, friends, and loved ones to celebrate love, gratitude, and prosperity, just like they did. What we can learn from the pilgrims ties back to much simpler times where survival trumps comfort, life trumps location, and a dream fulfilled makes the hardships along the path into valuable lessons. No, at heart we really aren’t much different than those colonists were, and their sacrifice is very much a part of this holiday we celebrate. May the paths they forged before us be on our minds this year as we gather and celebrate what it truly means to be thankful.



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