In 1621...after a very hard and devastating first year in the New World, the Pilgrim's fall harvest was very successful and plentiful.
The pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native American Indians. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration.
There were about 140 people, including the 90 Indian men and about 50 Pilgrims at the three-day celebration. Among the Native Americans was Chief Massasoit. Games, singing and dancing were most likely part of the celebration. The Indians probably demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow, with the Pilgrims demonstrating their musket skills.
Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, although we know it took place between September 21 or 22 and November 9, it is believed to have occurred in the middle of October. It has been suggested that a most likely time would have been around Michaelmas (September 29), the traditional time for English harvest homes.
On the menu was sea bass, cod, wildfowl - duck, geese, or wild turkey; cornmeal; and five deer brought by the Indians. Fruits and "herbs" (or vegetables, though this term was not in use at this time) were probably part of the meal also. (Edible plants were known as sallet herbs, pot herbs or roots).
It is quite possible that shellfish, although plentiful and forming a large part of the Pilgrims' diet in the early years, was not a feature at the feast, as it was looked on as poverty fare and, hence, inappropriate for a feast.
The meats would have been roasted or boiled in traditional English fashion, and the fish boiled or perhaps grilled in the Indian manner. Breads were skillet breads cooked by the fire or perhaps risen breads baked in a clay or cloam oven. Fruit tarts were produced in the same way. The herbs were either boiled along with the meats as "sauce" or used in "sallets." A sallet was a vegetable dish either cooked or raw, and either "simple" or "compound"; that is, made from one ingredient or several. The popularity of sallet or vegetable dishes was not great at this time and not always mentioned, although they were known to be served fairly frequently.
People sat at cloth-covered tables on benches and forms, with a few chairs for the more important men. They ate with knives, a few spoons, but no forks. Large linen napkins, about three feet square, were important since hands were used to both serve and eat. Instead of dishes, trenchers (small square or round wooden plates) were used. Sometimes two people would share one of these. The food was taken from the serving bowls and platters, perhaps being cut on a trencher before being consumed, or just eaten without being cut. Pottage (or soups) were eaten from bowls and the beverages were passed around in bowls, cups or other containers.
References to the Fall or Harvest Celebration
Although there is no exact record of the famous first harvest festival of 1621, referred to as the "First Thanksgiving," this event is mentioned in two quotes:
(1) One in a letter by Edward Winslow included in Mourt's Relation. (Mourt refers to the name "G. Mourt" who signed the dedication at the beginning of the book. It is thought that this was George Morton, who arrived on the ship Anne in 1623).
(2) And the other from Governor William Bradford's more general comment on the first harvest, Of Plimoth Plantation.
Edward Winslow, Plymouth, in New England, this 11th of December, 1621
Plantation settled at Plimoth in NEW ENGLAND, by certaine English
Aduenturers both Merchants and others, LONDON,Printed for
Iohn Bellamie,..1622, pp, 60-61)
Governor William Bradford
BOSTON: Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers...
1898, p. 127.)
Feeding 50 colonists and at least 90 Native guests for three days presumably drew on the Pilgrims' experience with English harvest feasts. Back in England, once the harvest labor was done, the inhabitants of a manor or a village commonly held a community-wide feast, where simple but plentiful fare, such as meat, bread and beer, was made available to all.
The colonists would not have thought three days of feasting, recreation and Native American guests to be a true Christian thanksgiving. Both the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Boston Puritans were strict Calvinist protestants who rejected the religious calendar of holidays that the English people inherited from the Middle Ages. They believed that Christmas, Easter and the Saints' days were not part of a true Christian church and regarded them as man-made inventions which should be discarded.
Instead, they observed only the three religious holidays for which they could find New Testament justification: the Sunday Sabbath, Days of Fasting and Humiliation, and Days of Thanksgiving and Praise.
Thanksgivings marked favorable circumstances or "mercies," and Fast Days unfavorable circumstances or "judgements." The faithful believed that God's pleasure or displeasure with his people was signaled by worldly events. Thus, Thanksgivings and Fast Days were scheduled on this basis and were never assigned fixed positions in the calendar, always being declared in response to God's Providence.
Fast Days more often occurred in the spring, when there was nothing much to eat anyway, and Thanksgivings were usually declared after a harvest in the autumn. They could be declared at any time by individual churches, towns or the colonial governments. There could be more than one in a single year or none at all.
Unlike the Catholic or Anglican Thanksgivings, they were never on Sunday, to avoid conflict with the Sabbath. They usually fell on the weekday regularly set aside as "Lecture Day," which was Wednesday in Connecticut and Thursday in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. Lecture Day was a mid-week church meeting, often coinciding with the market day, when topical sermons were enjoyed by the colonists.
The following year, 1622, the Pilgrims harvest was not as bountiful, as they were still unused to growing the corn. During the year, they also had shared their stored food with newcomers, causing them to run short of food.
3rd year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry, with the crops
dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and
prayer and soon thereafter the rains came. To celebrate, November
29th of that year was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.
... Our Thanksgiving Day
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