|Just like Christmas and Santa Claus, most Americans think of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims as synonymous, inseparable. Truth be known, the Pilgrims never actually celebrated an annual day of feasting and thanks-but don't let that keep you from opening that next can of cranberry sauce. The truth behind Thanksgiving might add a little more spice to that stuffing.
The Pilgrims did have a feast in 1621, pursuant to their first harvest, and it is this holiday that has become considered "The First Thanksgiving." But the Puritanical citizens of Plymouth would never have considered such a day of feasting as a means of praising their Lord; rather, a truly holy day of thanksgiving would have been devoutly observed through fasting and prayer.
Furthermore, while our Thanksgiving falls upon the fourth Thursday of November, the Pilgrims' harvest festival took place on some unknown date between September 21 and November 9; while many estimates place the feast in early October, there is no way to be certain. President Abraham Lincoln anchored the holiday as the last Thursday in November, to hold some correlation with the November 21, 1620 landfall of the Mayflower. It wasn't until 1939 that Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to our more contemporary fourth Thursday, and Congress ratified the shift in 1941.
Yet despite these somewhat surprising bits of trivia, we do have two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving. The first is written by Edward Winslow, dated December 12th of that year; the second eyewitness description was penned by William Bradford, some twenty years after the 1621 feast. It is through Bradford's account that turkey becomes firmly wedded to the Thanksgiving tradition. The rediscovery of Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation in 1854 kindled a heightened American interest in the history of the Pilgrims, which eventually led President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving into the national holiday that we enjoy today.
Furthermore, some of the more familiar items on your Thanksgiving table most likely would not have been on the Pilgrims'. As they most likely had no pigs with them, ham wouldn't have been featured heavily on their Thanksgiving diet. Yams and sweet potatoes had not yet been introduced to New England, so you can scratch those off of the First Holiday Menu as well. Cranberries were present, but as sugar was far from overabundant, the cranberry sauce we know and love most likely wasn't around in 1621. Contrary to popular belief, popcorn was also conspicuously absent from the First Thanksgiving; the Indian corn could only be half-popped, which (as we all know) wouldn't have tasted so hot. And finally, while they probably would have made a kind of pudding sweetened by honey or syrup, their pumpkin dessert most likely would have been lacking in crust or whipped topping.
But despite these differences, Thanksgiving has nonetheless held a hallowed place in the American calendar for well over a century, providing our society with a moment to breathe, a day of meditative thanks apart from the all-too-hectic workweek. Excellent food is prepared and good fortune remembered thankfully as families reunite for this most special of holidays. No matter its origins, the fourth Thursday of November is a uniquely American feast, affording an assiduous country a much-needed day of Thanksgiving.