What was the first Thanksgiving really like? Those first Pilgrims would not recognize much in today’s celebration. In his book The First Thanksgiving (IVP, 2013) Robert McKenzie helps clarify some of the misconceptions we’ve developed over the years.
What did the original Pilgrims look like?
We think of them in somber black dress with the white collar and silver buckles on shoes, belts and hats. This image, promoted in the Ladies’ Home Journal, comes from the middle of the nineteenth century and couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary the Pilgrims had a “taste for a wide range of bright colors.” (p. 131) As for buckles, well they “were unheard of among common folk for at least another half century. Even had they been available, we may doubt whether the Leideners among them would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (The wives did not even wear wedding rings).” (130-31)
What was on the menu?
“[A]lmost nothing we associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu.” (p. 132) Turkeys were hard to catch. More likely we would have seen geese, ducks, swans, herons, and cranes. To compliment this we can add “fresh fish, mussels and clams, and perhaps eels, which could be caught in September ‘with small labor.’” Also there would have been “collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach and cabbage. (If you’re striving for authenticity, try serving turnips and eel next Thanksgiving.)” (p. 133) No sweet potatoes, no cranberry sauce “since the sugar so vital to the dish was unavailable. Nor, sad to say, was there any pumpkin pie. The Pilgrims lacked the butter and flour for the pie crust and faced the added problem of having no ovens for baking. (Everything they ate would have been boiled or roasted.)” (p. 134)
Were they all sitting around a table?
No. “. . . tables and even chairs were scarce . . . knives were rare and . . . forks nonexistent. . . In our mind’s eye, then, we should picture an outdoor feast in which almost everyone was sitting on the ground and eating with their hands—more like a picnic or cookout than the formal domestic scene we have come to associate with the holiday.” (p. 134)
Were the Indians invited?
Probably not. They more or less just invited themselves. “Even if Massasoit and his men were invited, we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best.” (pp. 135-36)
Was this a holy day?
No, it wasn’t. “. . . from the perspective of the Pilgrims themselves, this was no thanksgiving holiday.” (p. 138) The day was a “scene of beer and barbeque, shooting and sports. If there was a religious service of any kind, he [Winslow] fails to mention it.” This is better conceived as an “autumn harvest festival” rather than a religious day of thanksgiving.
Was this a repeated event?
There is no evidence that it was. “Surely families gave thanks for good harvests, but if the passengers of the Mayflower ever again held a public, colony-wide harvest festival, they left no evidence of the fact.” (p. 144) “The important point here is that the celebration of days of thanksgiving never evolved into an annual holiday as long as the Pilgrim’s values shaped public life in Plymouth Colony. In part, this reflected their longstanding aversion to the numerous holy days imposed (they believed) without scriptural warrant by the Catholic and Anglican churches.” (pp. 144-45) “It is more than ironic, then, that modern Americans insist on linking our contemporary Thanksgiving tradition to the Pilgrims, for in paying them homage we also reject a central pillar of their worldview.” (p. 145)
McKenzie’s book is a great read. To gain a better understanding on that First Thanksgiving and how it involved into the tradition that we know today this is a must read.
The First Thanksgiving is from IVP Academic. It is paperback with 219 pages and sells for $18.00.
Robert Tracy McKenzie (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) is professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College, where he teaches courses in U.S. history, the Civil War and historiography. McKenzie is the author of two award-winning monographs: One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil-War Era Tennessee (Cambridge, 1994) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford, 2009). He has also written numerous scholarly reviews and articles including “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of Our Dual Calling” in the book Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (Notre Dame, 2010).