By Molly Day
After the pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in 1620, a drought year was followed by a good harvest. Guests were invited to share a meal where they could thank God for the squash, beans and corn that the Wampanoag Indians taught them to grow.
Chief Squanto spoke English so his help had saved the Pilgrims from starvation. The tribe also taught them plant-based medicine and how to identify poisonous plants.
On the day, General William Bradford’s men hunted wild duck and the Wampanoags brought deer. Without electricity or running water, four women cooked dinner for 150 guests at the three-day feast.
It is likely that the meal was spit-roasted meat, boiled fowl, lobster, fish, cornbread, fruit and water. Bradford’s records include corn meal bread, fish, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, squash, beans, honey and maple syrup.
Since the Pilgrims came from England and Europe, Thanksgiving was partly based on English and European Harvest Home holidays. ancient Romans celebrated Ceres in October, Greeks honored Demeter, goddess of the harvest, the Chinese festival is around August 15 and Jewish communities celebrate Sukkoth fall harvest festival.
After the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book convinced President Lincoln to declare a national day of Thanksgiving to establish a common tradition in a divided country.
Thanksgiving was declared an American holiday in 1941, and after World War II, poultry industry’s marketing teams turned turkey into a symbol of America’s abundance. Turkey is such a consistent symbol that the day is commonly referred to as Turkey Day and vegetarians eat a non-meat meal of Tofurkey, turkey flavored tofu.
The symbols of Thanksgiving focus on spending time with community, family and friends, and being grateful. Today, many families add other Thanksgiving traditions such as football, skiing, church attendance, a walk in the woods, a movie, or Christmas shopping.
Decorations for Thanksgiving include fall leaves, berries, gourds, pumpkins and cornstalks. Early European-Americans decorated with wicker scarecrows filled with fall harvested fruits. Corn husk dolls were used to represent the Harvest Spirit in Celtic Lughnasadh.
Colorful corn has been a popular decoration across cultures. Native Americans revered the Corn God that taught them to grow the crop and the tradition was passed on at the first Thanksgiving.
Cranberries, harvested in the fall, were originally called crane berries for the pink blossoms and drooping stalks. Pumpkins and squash were originally stewed over the fire with maple syrup. Today winter squash and pumpkins are used as ravioli filling, soup base and for pastries. Gluten-free stuffing made with quinoa, cranberries and vegetables is on the table with bread stuffing and wild rice.
Cornucopias overflowing with fruit, nuts, flowers, ribbons, and decorations date from 400 B.C. The word cornucopia means horn of plenty from two Latin words cornu (horn) and copia (plenty). Now they are made with crescent roll dough.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity to gather with friends, family and community, whether we are returning to a former home or developing deeper roots in our current home. Immigrants to America incorporate their traditional crops and decorations into the holiday, bringing a feeling of home to their new environment.
On America’s east, west and southern coasts, seafood is served; in Alaska whale meat is the traditional meat centerpiece; and Irish immigrants serve beef.
Side dishes are regional, too: in Baltimore it’s sauerkraut, in the south greens, Italian-Americans serve lasagna, Mexican-Americans add mole, Ashkenazi Jews serve noodle kugel and in LA oyster pie is traditional. Vegetarians serve their stuffing in a baked squash, the Chinese serve moon cakes.
Whatever your traditions were in the past and however you spend the day, the heart of Thanksgiving is to be grateful.