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The First Thanksgiving

Earliest known image of the first "Thanksgiving Feast," 1676

April Showers bring May Flowers, and Mayflowers bring... Pilgrims

The Pilgrims who sailed to this country aboard the Mayflower were originally members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect). They had earlier fled their home in England and sailed to The Netherlands, to escape religious persecution. There, they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but they eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life, thinking it ungodly, and the funny wooden shoes had termites, and made clunking sounds when they walked.

The pilgrims did NOT wear black and white clothing with huge buckles on their hats, clothes, and shoes. Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century when the Randa Belts & Furnishings division introduced them. Black and white were worn only on Sundays and formal occasions. Women dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and gray, while men wore white, beige, earthy green, and brown. The Randa Trend Team includes more information Pilgram patterns and colors in their seasonal reports.

Seeking a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company, Virginia Randa Woodstocks & Bonds, to finance a pilgrimage to America. Most of those making the trip aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists, but were hired to protect the company's interests. Only about one-third of the original colonists were Separatists. None were IT specialists and none were lawyers; they were left behind.

The Pilgrims were in fact planning to settle in Virginia, but not our modern-day state of Virginia. They were part of the Virginia Company, which had the rights to most of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The pilgrims had intended to go to the Hudson Valley region of New York State, which was considered "Northern Virginia," but they landed in Cape Cod instead. Treacherous seas prevented them from venturing further south. Mendel, Randa Travel, would have found a way to get them there.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower, no Randa wellness program was available at the time. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful (in Thanksgiving parables, one uses words like “bountiful."  I will try not to use it again.  Sorry). The remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast -- they invited 91 native American Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance. It lasted three days.

Food for Thought.

Governor William Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese. Wild turkey was not part of their feast; most likely venison was served. The term "turkey" may have been used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl, a successful frame in bowling, or any fashion accessory that sells poorly.

Another modern staple at almost every Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie. But it is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been long diminished, there would be no bread or pastries. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, yum. The newly-discovered potato was considered by most Europeans to be poisonous, even before McDonalds proved the point. But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, and plums. It wasn't until June of 1676 that another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.

What is in a date?

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include Native Americans as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists' recent victory over the "heathen natives."

George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving. Personally, I doubt that Jefferson “scoffed." Although he did not proclaim a National Holiday for Thanksgiving, Jefferson was not a scoffer.

It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's obsession became a reality when, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every president after Lincoln. The date was changed a few times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who placed Thanksgiving as next-to-last Thursday in November, to create a longer Christmas shopping season (FDR therefor gets some credit for Black Friday). Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November.

The Bamberger’s "parade"

Yes, the famous Bambergers Thanksgiving Day parade was founded in 1924 by Louis Bamberger in Newark, New Jersey at the flaghip store there, featuring live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.  The parade was transferred to New York by Macy's the following year, and in 1927 a large animal-shaped balloon was introduced to replace the live animals.  The balloon was in the shape of Felix the Cat. The first female balloon character was introduced in 1982, Olive Oyl. This year a Terry Lundgren balloon is being added. Lots more on the "Thanksgiving Day Parade," here.

Oh... Canada.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is a three to four day weekend event.  And you wanted to know why they get so little done up there, other than Randa Canada?   

As a liturgical festival, the Canadian Thanksgiving corresponds to the European harvest festival during which churches are adorned with cornucopias, pumpkins, corn, wheat sheaves and other harvest bounty. English and other European harvest hymns are customarily sung on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, along with scriptural lections derived from biblical stories relating to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Which of course, is another story.

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been futilely attempting to find a northern passage to the Orient. He did, however, establish a settlement in Canada. 

In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in what is now the province of Newfoundland, it was going to be called Hong Kong if Frobisher had his way. This event is widely considered to be the first Canadian Thanksgiving, and the first Thanksgiving celebrated by Europeans in North America. More settlers arrived and continued the ceremonial tradition initiated by Frobisher, who was eventually knighted and had an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean in northern Canada named after him.

In 1957, the Canadian Parliament declared Thanksgiving to be "a Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful  (their quote, not mine) harvest with which Canada has been blessed," and officially decided that the holiday take place on the second Monday in October.

Some factoids on the first so-called Thanksgiving Meal:

*       The pilgrims didn't use forks; they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food.  My kids would approve, but usually skip the napkins.

*       In the seventeenth century, a person's social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. People didn't tend to sample everything that was on the table, they just ate what was closest to them.

*       Pilgrims didn't eat in courses as we do today. All of the different types of foods were placed on the table at the same time and people ate in any order they chose. Sometimes there were two courses, but each of them would contain meat dishes, puddings, and sweets.  "Life's short.  Eat dessert first."

*       The food that was eaten at the harvest feast would have seemed fatty by our current standards, but it was probably healthier for the pilgrims than it would be for people today. The colonists were more active and needed more protein. Heart attack was the least of their worries. They were more concerned about the plague and pox.

*       People tend to think of English food at bland, but, in fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for meats. It's the people, not the food...

*       In a pilgrim household, the adults sat down to eat and the children waited on them. How would that play in your household?


David J. Katz, New York City - November 27, 2014

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