Published: November 23, 2006
In the second of two commentaries, Nathaniel Philbrick dispels some of the myths surrounding the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, including the date of that dinner, what was eaten and what it was called.
Philbrick is the author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There are a lot of myths about what the first Thanksgiving was like, and most of them just aren't true. That's according to commentator Nathaniel Philbrick. He's the author of the best-selling book "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War." Here's the second of his essays on the pilgrims and their relationship with the Native Americans of New England.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Like most Americans, I first learned about the pilgrims during a Thanksgiving unit in elementary school. Locked forever in my brain is a kind of Currier & Ives image of the first Thanksgiving.
There is a large table draped with a surprisingly clean and elaborate white linen cloth. A golden brown turkey, pumpkin pies and a bowl of cranberry sauce are artfully arranged on the table. The pilgrims, their hands locked in prayer, prepare to enjoy the feast as a few curious Indians look on. It is a quaintly reassuring image, but like so many American myths, it bears little relation to the truth.
Everything we know about the first Thanksgiving comes from a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow. He describes a harvest festival that occurred not at the end of November but in late September or early October. Interestingly, Winslow does not call it a thanksgiving. He does not mention any turkeys.
What the pilgrims did have were ducks and geese. Winslow tells us that once they had harvested their crops, Governor William Bradford ordered four men to go fowling so that we might rejoice together after a more special manner.
In just a few days, the hunters secured enough ducks and geese to last the entire settlement a week. But what began as an English affair soon became an overwhelmingly native celebration.
Earlier that spring, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had offered to form an alliance with the pilgrims. That fall, Massasoit arrived in Plymouth with 90 of his people and five freshly killed deer. Instead of the prim and proper sit-down affair of legend, the first Thanksgiving was an outdoor festival. Even if all the pilgrims' furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted or sat as they clustered around fires where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits. Also simmering were pottages, stews into which meat and vegetables were thrown.
Winslow makes no mention of it, but the first Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the pilgrims, a new and startling phenomena, the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds and purples of a New England autumn.
In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster. In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny, fall days and cool, but not freezing, nights unleashes the colors latent within the trees' leaves. It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which Winslow wrote of the festivities that fall.
For me, this is an instance when the historical reality is much more interesting than the myth. Instead of a pious warm-up for a glum Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, the Plymouth Harvest Festival of 1621 was more like Woodstock, an outdoor celebration that just sort of happened. It's a legacy of spontaneity, goodwill and hope that is needed today more than ever before.
NORRIS: Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. He lives in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.