The Arab furniture maker in downtown Asmara wrinkled his forehead. Why did we need the table by late November? My description of hungry Pilgrims only puzzled him. Finally I blurted, “It’s the American harvest meal.” He nodded with a smile. Now he understood.
That was my first inkling Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the Pilgrims. Harvest feasts take place around the world. In addition, ceremonies of thanks for surviving a sea voyage, battle, or pestilence have a long history. After building Fort Caroline in Florida in 1564, French Huguenots sang a thanksgiving psalm and shared a meal. The next year, Spaniards landing at St. Augustine held a mass of thanks for safe arrival. Two weeks later they attacked Fort Caroline and slaughtered the Huguenots.
Early Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachusetts brought from England a practice of prayerful thanks for specific blessings, with either a fast or a feast. Although they disdained regular holidays like Christmas, their New England descendants came to enjoy yearly Thanksgivings unrelated to any historical event. Lydia Maria Child’s poem “Over the river and through the wood” first appeared in 1844 as “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”
A 114-word sentence by Edward Winslow, which mentions neither thanks nor turkeys, is the only firsthand account of the harvest celebration at Plymouth in 1621. Winslow’s letter was virtually unknown in the U.S. until Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston devoted to local history, printed it in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). In a footnote, Young called the Pilgrim festivities “the first Thanksgiving.” He added, “They no doubt feasted on the wild turkey, as well as venison.”
Among Young’s readers was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and author of the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She published recipes for turkey and pumpkin pie. For years she lobbied to make Thanksgiving a fixed national holiday. President Lincoln made her dream a reality by proclamation in 1863. Neither Hale’s letter to Lincoln nor his proclamation made any reference to Pilgrims.
How did a holiday unrelated to the Pilgrims get so tangled up in myth? More on that in next week’s post. Stay tuned!
Image: Alfred R. Waud, Civil War Thanksgiving scene, 1861. Library of Congress.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.