Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How The "Traditional" Thanksgiving Dinner Really Began

Written By Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (
"Everything historians today know about the First Thanksgiving is based on two passages written by colonists. One is a letter dated December 1621, by Edward Winslow in which he wrote: "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” That is the basis of what we know about that first Thanksgiving, and you’ll note what he says: “Our harvest being gotten in,” after gathering the “fruit of our labors” they sent “four men on fowling,” not because they were starving or needed it or didn’t have food but so that they “might after a more special manner rejoice together.” What they were rejoicing was the harvest – the abundance of fruits and vegetables – the bounty of the harvest – the cornucopia – the “horn of plenty.” And just to cap it off, they went out to hunt birds.

In a second account of the First Thanksgiving, a man named William Bradford wrote a book twenty years AFTER the actual event and just mentioned that the colonists killed wild turkeys during the autumn; he doesn’t say specifically that wild turkeys were killed for the First Thanksgiving or any similar event thereafter. Though his book does give clues to what WAS on this first menu, his book disappeared for many years (it was stolen by looters during the Revolutionary War) and didn’t reappear until 1854, so it didn’t have any influence on how Thanksgiving was celebrated for many years – until a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale came into the picture.


Sarah Josepha Hale, who lived from 1788-1879 a writer, an editor, a champion of women’s rights, a promoter of child welfare, and a fund-raiser for civic causes. She is perhaps most well known as the author of the popular nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." As early as 1827, Hale, who became the editor of a popular magazine, began calling for a national celebration of Thanksgiving and so began a 40-year quest to make this happen.

Now remember, Bradford’s book about the First Thanksgiving was recovered in 1854, and around that time, Hale, in her magazine, began writing romantic accounts of the First Thanksgiving, taking liberties to appeal to her readership and including recipes for roasted turkeys, bread stuffing, and pumpkin pies - all the things that today's holiday meals are still likely to contain – and none of the things that would have actually been on the table of the first Thanksgiving. They wouldn’t have had flour-based bread or pie or cranberries or sweet or white potatoes, and they didn’t eat with forks.
So does that mean we shouldn’t have sweet potatoes and rutabagas and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce or flour-based biscuits or any of the things that WEREN’T on the table of the First Thanksgiving? NO. Does that mean we shouldn’t eat with forks!? NO! I point this out merely to emphasize that we selectively choose what to celebrate and what to include on our dinner tables and how we want to celebrate – we selectively choose this all the time, especially when it comes to this holiday. Much of what informs our consciousness about this holiday is myth – a romanticized notion rather than informed facts, which, by the way, is fine. It’s fine to use myth to create our rituals and traditions. The point I want to make is that when we eat turkeys and pumpkin pie and cranberries on Thanksgiving, if we think we’re being true to some sacred tradition based on a real event, we’re not. We serve what we serve because that’s what we were taught, that’s what we’ve enjoyed, and that’s what we’ve always known. Our desire to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, something older than ourselves is greater than any desire to perfectly replicate the original source of our tradition. Does that make sense? We can have whatever we want at Thanksgiving, but let’s not justify the use of something like dead turkeys at Thanksgiving with any kind of rational explanation or historical reference. It’s just not there.

This is why it’s just as traditional NOT to have turkeys on the table as it is to have turkeys on the table at Thanksgiving. We shape our traditions out of our ideals. Sarah Josepha Hale shaped this tradition out of her ideals, and she selectively chose what to include on her menu, and we can do the same. We can create a beautiful feast that reflects our values. They are not mutually exclusive."

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