Thanksgiving - A Harvest Celebration

In early autumn of 1621, a harvest celebration was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Celebrating the harvest was a tradition the Pilgrims brought with them from England. In "Of Plymouth Plantation", Governor William Bradford wrote:

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty."

In attendance at the feast were the fifty-three Pilgrims living at Plymouth. Joining them were Chief Massasoit and approximately ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe. This harvest celebration came to be known as the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth.

In "Mourt’s Relation", an account written at the time, Edward Winslow wrote:

"...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."

The First Harvest Meal

While you may assume that the food your family enjoys at Thanksgiving today is much the same as that at the first Thanksgiving, there was very little written about the first Thanksgiving meal. We do know from what Bradford and Winslow wrote that venison and fowl were served. While they didn’t specify the types of fowl, it could have been wild turkey, duck, geese or swan, all native to the area. Mussels, bass, lobster, clams and oysters were also abundant at the time. These too may have been part of the feast.

Research on what was grown in the Pilgrims’ gardens shows that they could have enjoyed onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and peas. Corn was available too, but it was eaten differently than we eat it today. It would have been taken off of the cob and ground into cornmeal. It would have been mixed with water and cooked into a cornmeal mush or porridge, perhaps sweetened with molasses.

Fruits such as plums, grapes, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries grew wild in the area. Cranberries may have been part of the meal, but not in the cranberry sauce we enjoy today. One reason is that the sugar brought over on the Mayflower was gone or almost so. Another is that cooks did not begin making cranberry sauce until approximately 50 years later. Additionally, pumpkins and other squashes were native to the area and may have been served. However, the Pilgrims did not have the butter and wheat needed to make crust for the pumpkin pie so popular at Thanksgiving dinners today.

How Thanksgiving Became A National Holiday

Over time, the harvest celebration became the annual holiday we recognize today. In the beginning, state governors might choose to declare a Thanksgiving holiday.Gradually, the tradition of declaring a day of Thanksgiving spread across America. Eventually, it became customary to hold Thanksgiving on a Thursday in November.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to declare a national Thanksgiving holiday. For many years it was the president’s choice to declare the holiday each year. In 1941, the United States Congress proclaimed Thanksgiving an annual national holiday and set it for the fourth Thursday of November.