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How Thanksgiving Dinner Came To Be

Giphy Images.

Last month we covered the dark history behind Halloween as we know it and people seemed to enjoy it. 

One of my favorite podcasts in all the land, Twisted History, hosted by that handsome mfer Large and Vibbs covered the twisted history behind the Thanksgiving holiday this week so I encourage everybody to listen to it.

I know not everybody has had the chance to listen so I figured I'd take a stab at a blog version. 

New Yorker - Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for nearly four centuries, commemorating that solemn dinner in November, 1621. We know the story well, or think we do. Adorned in funny hats, large belt buckles, and clunky black shoes, the Pilgrims of Plymouth gave thanks to God for his blessings, demonstrated by the survival of their fragile settlement. The local Indians, supporting characters who generously pulled the Pilgrims through the first winter and taught them how to plant corn, joined the feast with gifts of venison. A good time was had by all, before things quietly took their natural course: the American colonies expanded, the Indians gave up their lands and faded from history, and the germ of collective governance found in the Mayflower Compact blossomed into American democracy.

Almost none of this is true, as David Silverman points out in “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving” (Bloomsbury). The first Thanksgiving was not a “thanksgiving,” in Pilgrim terms, but a “rejoicing.” An actual giving of thanks required fasting and quiet contemplation; a rejoicing featured feasting, drinking, militia drills, target practice, and contests of strength and speed. It was a party, not a prayer, and was full of people shooting at things. The Indians were Wampanoags, led by Ousamequin (often called Massasoit, which was a leadership title rather than a name). An experienced diplomat, he was engaged in a challenging game of regional geopolitics, of which the Pilgrims were only a part. 

While the celebrants might well have feasted on wild turkey, the local diet also included fish, eels, shellfish, and a Wampanoag dish called nasaump, which the Pilgrims had adopted: boiled cornmeal mixed with vegetables and meats. There were no potatoes (an indigenous South American food not yet introduced into the global food system) and no pies (because there was no butter, wheat flour, or sugar).

I talked about this on Barstool Radio a while back with the Chicago boys, but being from out east Thanksgiving was looked at and celebrated as much more than just a reason to get together with relatives you wouldn't see or speak to the rest of the year, eat like a glutton, and watch atrocious NFC football (looks at you Lions and Cowboys). We were raised from a young age taking field trips to Plymouth Rock, touring ye olde "Plimoth Plantation" as it was called then, aka Plymouth Plantation, and learning all about the Mayflower Proclamation.

Shutterstock Images.
Shutterstock Images.

While it's taught and believed that the Pilgrims fled England in search of religious freedom, their quest for that had actually ended 10 years prior to their voyage on the Mayflower. In 1608 the Pilgrims found refuge in Holland. They set up shop in the city of Leiden where they were more than welcome to worship how they pleased and enjoyed “much peace and liberty,” according to Pilgrim Edward Winslow.

“The Pilgrims actually had no reason to leave the Dutch Republic in order to go to America to seek religious toleration—because they already had it,” says Simon Targett, co-author of New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers.

Like tens of millions of newcomers who would follow in their wake to America, the Pilgrims were economic migrants. After working for more than a decade in Leiden’s textile industry, the Pilgrims possessed little beyond their religious freedom. The former farmers lived in poverty, laboring long hours for low pay by weaving, spinning and making cloth. The Pilgrims’ economic hardship made it exceedingly difficult to convince their fellow separatists to join them in Leiden, no matter their religious rights.

As the Pilgrims’ economic prospects further dimmed with the collapse of the wool market, the onset of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe and the imminent end of a 12-year truce between Spain and the Dutch Republic threatened the tranquility of their safe haven. While the Pilgrim population dwindled, their fears swelled that the secular Dutch society that tolerated their religious beliefs also corrupted the morals of their children, causing them to turn away from their church and English identity.

“The Pilgrims wanted their children to be English citizens, not Dutch citizens,” Targett says. “But if they were going to leave, they wouldn’t be able to go back to England because of religious reasons.” Pilgrim eyes, therefore, gazed across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where English merchants had been financing colonial settlements for decades. There they could freely worship, but also have greater economic stability and preserve their English identity.

So the Pilgrims weren't exactly fleeing religious persecution. They already had their freedom in Holland. Rather, they wanted to maintain their English culture and feared the progressive Dutch culture was leading their children astray from their God-fearing ways of life.

The Mayflower was also not full of just Pilgrims. Half of the voyagers aboard the ship were actually "economic migrants" sailing as representatives of the financial backers of the Mayflower and its voyage. They actually fronted the money for the ship, its crew, and to set up shop in America. The Pilgrims in exchange for passage, were required to "work" the land for seven years as repayment.

As we all know, that didn't work out so well. 

The voyage was rough. And once they landed things got even worse.

For starters, they landed hundreds of miles north of their intended destination of Virginia. 

They also weren't prepared for the harsh northeast elements, the terrain, or the salty soil of Cape Cod.

Luckily for them, they had a good samaritan nearby.

We were taught correctly, that Squanto was a fucking folk hero. And we knew from day 1 that had he and his Native American friends not came to the rescue of the Pilgrim settlers, it would have been a wrap for the black & whites that following winter. 

Nor did the Pilgrims extend a warm invitation to their Indian neighbors. Rather, the Wampanoags showed up unbidden. And it was not simply four or five of them at the table, as we often imagine. Ousamequin, the Massasoit, arrived with perhaps ninety men—more than the entire population of Plymouth. Wampanoag tradition suggests that the group was in fact an army, honoring a mutual-defense pact negotiated the previous spring. They came not to enjoy a multicultural feast but to aid the Pilgrims: hearing repeated gunfire, they assumed that the settlers were under attack. After a long moment of suspicion (the Pilgrims misread almost everything that Indians did as potential aggression), the two peoples recognized one another, in some uneasy way, and spent the next three days together.

If you've been to Plymouth Plantation, you know, you could not pick a worse place to set up shop. Talk about zero effort in finding a good place to camp. Total mail-in job.

The land was infertile, reaping shitty to no crops, the game was scarce, and it offered little shelter from the elements. 

Squanto showed the pilgrims how to plant root vegetables that would actually grow well and to naturally fertilize their corn seed and crops by planting fish with them. Him and his tribe gave them deer meat and showed them where to hunt, and guided them through the winter. The guy was a real-life guardian angel. 

And how did they repay him and his people? By slaughtering them 15 and then 55 years later of course!

No centuries-long continuity emerged from that 1621 meet-up. New Englanders certainly celebrated Thanksgivings—often in both fall and spring—but they were of the fasting-and-prayer variety. Notable examples took place in 1637 and 1676, following bloody victories over Native people. To mark the second occasion, the Plymouth men mounted the head of Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom above their town on a pike, where it remained for two decades, while his dismembered and unburied body decomposed. The less brutal holiday that we celebrate today took shape two centuries later, as an effort to entrench an imagined American community. In 1841, the Reverend Alexander Young explicitly linked three things: the 1621 “rejoicing,” the tradition of autumnal harvest festivals, and the name Thanksgiving.

Today, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes any number of dishes: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

So what did the first "Thanksgiving" meal consist of? If one were to create a historically accurate feast, consisting of only those foods that historians are certain were served at the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” there would be slimmer pickings. 

Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, wrote home to a friend:

Smithsonian- “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”

William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding, “And besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

Tuns out Turkey was not the headliner of the meal. Nope. It was actually a goose or a duck, as those were the most plentiful game in the area. Some historians suspect it might have also been a swan or several passenger pigeons as well.

“Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” says Wall. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

They also stuffed the birds, but not with bread. The pilgrim settlers instead used onions and herbs to stuff the birds.

In addition to wildfowl and deer the Natives brought them, the colonists and Wampanoag probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels. 

(Fun fact- for some reason this has stuck with me since my first trip to Plymouth. A part the tour guides always made sure to mention to us when describing the Mayflower Proclamation, and the guidelines it laid out for the settlers included a part about lobsters. Turns out lobsters were so plentiful back then they used to literally wash up on shore during low tide or when they were dead. Since they were all over the place, and bottom feeders were described as "garbage of the seas" it was a law that "you could not feed your family lobster more than 3 times a week. Otherwise, you would be subject to flogging." This is somehow still on the books as a Massachusetts "Blue Law" believe it or not.)

It's also a misnomer that potatoes were a part of the first meal. Turns out that white potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to make their way to North America. There also was no cranberry sauce.

It would be another 50 years before an Englishman wrote about boiling cranberries and sugar into a “Sauce to eat with. . . .Meat.” Says Wall: “If there was beer, there were only a couple of gallons for 150 people for three days.” She thinks that to wash it all down the English and Wampanoag drank water.


So based on all this, how did the meal evolve into what it is today?

Well the holiday, or observance took root in the mid 19th century. A Boston clergyman by the name of Alexander Young found Governor Bradford's old manuscript "Of Plimoth Plantation" and printed it in his "Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers" and he casually declared the feast "the first Thanksgiving.". There was nostalgia for colonial times, but by the 1850's most of the states and territories were celebrating their version of the holiday.

A couple of decades later, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, proposed a day of unity and remembrance to counter the trauma of the Civil War

(Fun fact - Sarah Josepha Hale was also the author behind "Mary Had A Little Lamb" nbd.) 

She also lobbied the hell out of Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Like all day every day. Bugged him relentlessly.

 …and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be that national holiday, following Young’s lead in calling it Thanksgiving. After the Civil War, Thanksgiving developed rituals, foodways, and themes of family—and national—reunion. Only later would it consolidate its narrative around a harmonious Pilgrim-Wampanoag feast, as Lisa Blee and Jean O’Brien point out in “Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit” (North Carolina), which tells the story of how the holiday myth spread. Fretting over late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigration, American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders: white, Protestant, democratic, and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom, and faith.

Fun Fact - In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt briefly moved Thanksgiving up a week, in an effort to extend the already important shopping period before Christmas and spur economic activity during the Great Depression. While several states followed FDR’s lead, others balked, with 16 states refusing to honor the calendar shift, leaving the country with dueling Thanksgivings. Faced with increasing opposition, Roosevelt reversed course just two years later, and in the fall of 1941, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

In the version that many generations of Americans grew up hearing, there were no Wampanoags until the Pilgrims encountered them. If Thanksgiving has had no continuous existence across the centuries, however, the Wampanoag people have. Today, they make up two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, and they descend from a confederation of groups that stretched across large areas of Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.

Also, in typical of the times, 1900s through the 1930s Thanksgiving used to resemble Halloween in how it was celebrated. The practice of dressing up in costumes and asking for candy didn't become common in the U.S. until the 1940s and 1950s, prior to that people trick or treated on Thanksgiving.

They called it "Thanksgiving Masking."

The masking started, it seems, in the mid-19th century—an outgrowth of "mumming," the centuries-old tradition in which costumed men went from door to door, asking for food and/or money. AKA being fuckin bums!

They would dance gigs, play songs on harmonicas, sing songs, and do other bum type stuff and beg for change.

The Atlantic- By the end of the 19th century, the process had evolved to look downright Halloween-y. People would don masks—especially popular: parrots and other birds and animals—and parade around town. Boys would wear girls' clothing, "tog[ging] themselves out in worn-out finery of their sisters" and spending the day "gamboling in awkward mimicry of their sisters to the casual street piano."

The mood, during these festivities, was light. And most everyone involved, according to the Times, "was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business."

Though especially popular in New York, other cities took part in Thanksgiving masking, too. Newspapers of the time described elaborate masquerade balls held in places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Montesano, Washington. As one syndicated column, tracked down by NPR's Linton Weeks, put it: "Thousands of folks ran rampant. Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime."

Always knew how awful the great depression was but didn't realize just how poor most of the country was until reading about how people looked for any reason to go door to door begging for food and change. Including Thanksgiving "mumming".

One of the most popular costumes for children: the beggar. Kids dressed up in old clothes or rags, playing the part of "ragamuffins"—a practice that became so widespread that Thanksgiving came to be nicknamed "Ragamuffin Day." Parades of faux-poor children dated back at least to 1891, the New York Public Library historian Carmen Nigro told Weeks. Indeed, as the New York Tribune reported in 1901, "every street had its band of children, dressed as ragamuffins, who kept in the open air for hours."

Thanksgiving maskers, circa 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

Along the way during the 50s and 60s this luckily for everybody phased out and the holiday transitioned into one of family gatherings, feasting, and relaxing. Followed by a commercialized day of rampant shopping and spending. 

This was the strange history behind Thanksgiving. 

Hope everybody finds a way to enjoy tomorrow in some way. It's been a rough year. Not everybody is lucky enough to get to spend tomorrow with family, or even friends. Be sure to check in with people those people tomorrow! 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.