Thanksgiving is next week, and it will look different than it has in years past: families may be gathered together on Zoom calls, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be virtual and most people will probably be eating microwave meals alone in their apartments. This socially-distanced holiday will leave many wishing for their normal Thanksgiving traditions. However, while the usual Thanksgiving traditions would have been fun, they were never accurate recreations of the first Thanksgiving.
According to historians, the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. It was not, however, the first-ever celebration of a successful harvest in the Americas. Harvest festivals were actually a common occurrence at the time. The Pilgrims had established a village at Plymouth, and they met several Native American leaders who taught them about agriculture, fishing and which plants could be eaten. Thanksgiving was a celebration of their first successful corn harvest, and there were Native American leaders present at the celebration mostly for political reasons. The Native Americans whom the Pilgrims met spoke English, had previously been to Europe and come back to the Americas and already had a history with Europeans. This specific group of Native Americans, the Wampanoags, had faced violent and hostile encounters from the Europeans, who kidnapped many of Native Americans and sold them into slavery. The Wampanoags did not just hand over their land to the Pilgrims. The Wampanoags were losing people to the smallpox that the previous European settlers brought, and they needed more men to fight off rival tribes, so the Wampanoag leader wanted to form an alliance with the Pilgrims as a last resort. This version of history is far different from the one many Americans were taught in elementary school.
In 1623, a second Thanksgiving celebration was held by the Pilgrims because they had a successful harvest in spite of a drought, which caused them to have to fast leading up to this event. After that, Thanksgiving was not celebrated as a formal holiday, but settlers had various days throughout the year where they would give thanks, fast and pray. The “first” Thanksgiving was mostly forgotten as time went on and new settlers came to other parts of the Americas. As other parts of the land were being established, New England started to become less relevant, and they needed to attract tourists. Toward the later part of the 19th century, this, along with an increase in European immigrants in the North, led the ancestors of the Pilgrims to want to re-establish their roots by making Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln decided to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to unite the country during the peak of the Civil War.
One of the most blatant inaccuracies found in Thanksgiving traditions is that the Pilgrims did not eat pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce or any of the typical dishes that people associate with Thanksgiving. Even turkey, the most popular Thanksgiving dish, has no record of being eaten by the Pilgrims. The “first” Thanksgiving feast consisted of corn that had just been harvested, deer, possibly eel or shellfish and some sort of wildfowl or waterfowl.
It is important to acknowledge the historical inaccuracies that fill the stories and traditions of Thanksgiving because a lot of these myths were created as a way of repressing the dark history of this country. European settlers were not friendly to the Native Americans, and the Native Americans did not willingly give up their land. Most of the Thanksgiving traditions that we know today were created relatively recently in history for reasons that aren’t as meaningful or special as we are taught. Although many are mourning their usual Thanksgiving traditions this year, it may be comforting to know those traditions were historically inaccurate and mostly based on political and economic goals anyway. Now is the perfect time to create new traditions and teach a more accurate history of Thanksgiving.
By Mia Shelton, Staff Writer