Ok, we know it wasn't really like that. But our traditional picture of the first Thanksgiving isn't much more accurate than this one. Have you ever stopped to wonder just how much of the sacred Thanksgiving image is based in fact and how much is wishful thinking? Was it really all peas and hominy between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans back in 1621?
To help realign your version of that first Thanksgiving, we've enlisted the help of HISTORY's chief historian, Dr. Libby O'Connell.
According to Dr. O'Connell, the best information we have about that inaugural Thanksgiving (which the Pilgrims probably referred to as a "harvest festival," not "Thanksgiving #1") comes from the journal of colonist Edward Winslow. Of the 50 Pilgrims alive at Plymouth, his letters contain some of the only existing records of what took place on that fateful day -- which was actually a three-day festival in 1621. (So stop complaining about your in-laws staying all weekend. It's tradition!)
A traditional 21st Century Thanksgiving feast couldn't be complete without turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and probably a few other items that we're forgetting. However, according to Dr. O'Connell, if you were at that original Thanksgiving, you may have to do without a couple of your favorite sides. Gasp!
After a very tough first winter in the New World (in which half of the colonists died), the survivors were overjoyed to find that their hard work in the fields had produced a bountiful harvest. Thus, they decided to celebrate with a feast day. To this end, Winslow writes that Governor William Bradford sent a party of four men out for the day to shoot some fowl to go along with the Pilgrims' abundant veggies.
When these four hunters returned, they reportedly brought back enough fowl to feed the entire colony for a month. Now that's a lot of shooting... enough to attract the attention of the neighbors perhaps, but we'll get to that in a minute.
According to O'Connell, historians are fairly sure that the first Thanksgiving feast included venison, pumpkins, squash, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, and beans. Conspicuously absent are sweet potatoes, pies, and cranberry sauce -- on account of the fact that the colonists' sugar supply had dwindled. "You have to have sugar to have cranberry sauce, otherwise it would be really tart," O'Connell tells Holidash, "So cranberry sauce wasn't around."
Here's something else that may surprise you: Despite the very uptight image the many of us have of the Pilgrims, they were by no means teetotalers. "If they had beer or hard cider," O'Connell explains, "They would be happily consuming it." We take that as license to serve alcohol with your meal -- again, it's traditional.
The Guest List
Who really showed up on the nation's first Turkey Day? Did the colonists send out embossed invitations to all the local tribes? The answer, of course, is no.
In fact, Chief Massasoit and his 90 Wampanoag braves arrived completely unannounced as the Pilgrims prepared for the feast. Though nobody knows exactly why they showed up, Dr. O'Connell offers one explanation, "We think they might have come to investigate what all the shooting was about." Seems reasonable enough, right?
Fortunately, when the 90-plus Wampanoags arrived at Plymouth, the Pilgrims had the good sense to invite them to partake in the festivities. "Displaying excellent manners, the Wampanoag shot five deer to contribute to the feast," says O'Connell.
According to Winslow's entries, Chief Massasoit, the 90 braves, and perhaps a few Wampanoag women stuck around and partied with the Pilgrims for three full days. Just think of how decadent you feel after just one day of feasting!
Thanksgiving Through the Years
Ironically, that all-important Thanksgiving story was largely forgotten for many years as the harvest festival established itself in New England. Moving forward into the 18th Century, the Thanksgiving that took root in New England was more or less a continuation of the long-established harvest festivals in Europe.
These feast days were concentrated in New England and generally uncoordinated until the mid-19th Century. Around this time, America's most popular women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, was busy campaigning for what it called "a day of national thanksgiving."
Giving in to Godey's passionate appeals (while also re-emphasizing the role of the federal government in the process), Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 -- right in the middle of the Civil War. Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday in November, which was changed to the fourth Thursday during the Great Depression to spur retail sales.
The image of the Pilgrims and Indians sitting around a giant table piled high with turkey and dressing really didn't re-emerge until the late 1800s, according to O'Connell. The addition of televised football games and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade obviously came along in the 20th Century.
To learn more about the history of Thanksgiving, tune into the History Channel's "The Real Story of Thanksgiving," which premieres on Wednesday, Nov. 24 at 8PM ET/PT.