My earliest memory of Thanksgiving survives in the form of a hand turkey created in kindergarten by drawing an outline around my hand on a sheet of brown construction paper, then affixing bits of color to make it look pretty and happy. It looked nothing like the white heap of flesh we’d roast later that week.
At story time, I learned how pilgrims decked out in black, white and buckles came over on the Mayflower, landed near Plymouth Rock and feasted on turkey, pumpkin pie and other fixings with friendly Native-American Indians who offered corn and hospitality. It was a quaint little story I never questioned.
The fourth Thursday of November would come ’round, relatives invaded our home, we poked fun at dad falling asleep in his armchair watching football, and in the background of the hub-bub was perky commentary and Christmas music from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. It was one of the only days of the year that the good silverware came out and I was allowed to use the dishwasher. When I started working, my employer was kind enough to provide me with a turkey at Thanksgiving and a ham at Christmas, which I turned into a feast for orphaned coworkers who couldn’t go home or I donated to a food drive.
But in the 10 years I’ve been abroad and my family now gone, Thanksgiving has been a period to travel. International airports in the USA are eerily quiet, the world outside America and Canada goes about its business, and price-wise it’s not high season, so it’s affordable and uncrowded. To me, that’s perfect.
Today is actually one of only two Thanksgivings I’ve spent in Greece. We’re having turkey roast, homemade stuffing, homemade pie with pumpkins I chose from the field and de-pulped myself, and turkey gravy and whole cranberry sauce I smuggled from America on the last trip. But before I stop work and disappear into the kitchen, let’s talk about the real Thanksgiving and end with what I’m thankful for.
History of American Thanksgiving
Modern day Thanksgiving is a combination of events and based loosely on what originally occurred in the 16th century.
Its origins lie in the simple act of celebrating annual harvest, which is common in nations worldwide. “Thanksgiving” therefore is not an actual day or event, but the act of giving thanks to God for blessings of the past, general well-being and bountiful crops.
* Note that Canadian Thanksgiving is different.
What happened in the 16th century?
There were two groups of English settlers that came to America and set up colonies. In December 1619, one group arrived at Berkeley Hundred (now Berkeley Plantation) in Virginia and had a charter that said their day of arrival would be observed annually as a “day of thanksgiving to almighty God.” There is no feast on record.
In 1620, the second and more widely known group of English settlers came on the Mayflower, which was originally destined for North Virgina (now New York) and instead landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts due to treacherous seas. Arriving first in Provincetown (not Plymouth Rock) on November 17 without a land patent, settlers angered locals by stealing food, grave robbing and shooting at them, so they set sail and anchored in Plymouth Harbor on December 17. Named Plymouth Colony by Captain John Smith, it was founded by a group of separatists known as Pilgrims, who were fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place to worship as they pleased. They wore no buckles, which weren’t in fashion ’til later in the 17th century, and black and white only on Sunday.
Tisquantum, or Squanto, was a Native-American who — despite being kidnapped, enslaved in Europe then returned to the USA to find his tribe decimated by plague — helped broker a peace agreement between the Plymouth Colony and Chief Massasoit and taught settlers how to find fish and fertilize crops.
The first harvest festival in 1621 lasted three days and took place between September 21 and November 11, with the 51 surviving Pilgrims and 91 Native-Americans feasting on wild turkey, water fowl, fish and five deer. This is the meal that many attribute as the first “Thanksgiving,” upon which the modern Thanksgiving dinner is based, although there was no giving thanks and the feast wasn’t repeated.
In reality, the first “Thanksgiving” was a solemn occasion held in July 1623 that included a day of prayer to praise and thank God for the congregation’s good fortune that additional supplies and colonists would soon be arriving from England. There was no feast.
Thanksgiving became an annual custom after the American Revolution when New York first picked it up, then Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Finally, Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date as the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, which was approved in 1941.
What did they really eat?
According to food historian Kathleen Curtin, the feast likely included:
Seafood: Cod, eel, clams, lobster
Wild Fowl: Wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles
Meat: Venison, seal
Grain: Wheat flour, Indian corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes, carrots
Fruit: Plums, grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, Chestnuts, acorns
Herbs and Seasonings: Olive oil, liverwort, leeks, dried currants, parsnips
They had no eggs, milk or sugar to make pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. Also, there is no evidence of an oven or the butchering of pigs that colonists brought from England, therefore no bread, stuffing or ham. Sweet potatoes were uncommon, and corn was only available in dried form since it wasn’t in season.
What I’m thankful for
A tradition around many Thanksgiving tables is for each person to say what they’re grateful for, in addition to saying grace. My friend Jeff has an after-meal tradition in which all family members sit around the table and apply avocado-clay masks; this started when his sister became a cosmetologist. Adding to the humor of seeing grandpa with green stuff on his face is the fact they drink wine, tell jokes and see who is last to crack off their mask from laughing.
— I’m thankful for people like Jeff, who make me laugh so hard I cry.
— I’m thankful for enemies, who offer challenge and make me laugh in very different ways.
— I’m thankful to have my health, a somewhat predictable and boring thing to say, but no less true.
— I’m thankful to have been flat broke twice in my life, so I could see what really matters and the beauty and wealth in simplicity.
— I’m thankful to readers of this site that I earned from nothing, who continue to read, recommend, lurk or loathe me.
— I’m thankful for friends worldwide who have given me love, honesty and fidelity since birth, childhood, these past 10 years or past few months.
— I’m thankful to be in Greece since my credit cards would otherwise be burning if I were in America tomorrow for the day after Thanksgiving kickoff to Christmas sales. They call it “Black Friday,” though I don’t know why since most go into the red that day.
Gobble, gobble everyone!
Photos from: bridgeandtunnelclub.com, nativeamericans.com, deskpicture.com, simplyfair.co.uk