In 1621, the immigrants fresh off the boat from Plymouth, England shared an autumn harvest with the Native Americans who had welcomed them and helped them get established in their new home. Almost 400 years later, we commemorate this occasion with a national celebration known as Thanksgiving. Everybody knows that.
Well, did you know this is the simplified version? Of the 102 passengers who had originally set sail from England on the Mayflower, only 50 survived the first winter. They owed their lives to the Native Americans who spoke English, and were willing to teach them how to live off the land, and how to make peace with the local Wampanoag Indian Tribe.
Various forms of this first shared meal continued to take place, but it wasn’t until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day to be a national holiday celebrated in November. It had taken 36 years of lobbying by writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale before Abe finally acquiesced, mostly out of desperation to calm the anxious nation and put an end to the conflict.
President Lincoln had chosen the fourth Thursday in November for the Thanksgiving event, but it didn’t stay on that particular day. In 1939 during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt moved it up a week in an attempt to stimulate retail sales. The term “Black Friday” – getting businesses from the red into the black financially – didn’t come about until decades later, but people did bristle at the blatant commercialization, referring to it as “Franksgiving.” Two years later, FDR moved it back to the fourth Friday, where it has remained.
We have no record of the menu from 1621, but historians believe it featured lobster, seal and venison. There was no turkey, nor were there any of the pies, cakes or desserts that form the focal point of today’s Thanksgiving feast. These days, the focus is on the food which bears little resemblance to the original meal.
Through the centuries, the story of Thanksgiving has been one of immigration, political agendas, and economic manipulation. The modern menu bears little resemblance to the original. All that remains of that first celebration is an occasion to set aside time for sharing a spirit of thankfulness and a special meal with friends and loved ones.
Sometimes the simplified version is the best.