Posted By claire on November 24, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to all our US visitors, I hope you have a great day tomorrow with your friends and family. In the UK and the rest of Europe we don’t have Thanksgiving, although my church in the UK did have a harvest festival service, and all I knew about Thanksgiving was that it was something to do with the Pilgrim Fathers and that people eat turkey and pumpkin pie. So, I decided to do a bit of digging and here is what I found. Please forgive me if I get anything wrong – just blame wikipedia and the History Channel!!

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Please can you comment on this post to tell me how you celebrate Thanksgiving. Do you have any special family traditions? I’d love to know. I’m going to have to wait until Christmas for my turkey and I’ve never tasted pumpkin pie – very sad.

The First Thanksgiving

There seems to be a bit of an argument about who exactly celebrated the very first Thanksgiving and when it was celebrated, but the “acknowledged” first Thanksgiving was the harvest feast which was shared between the Wampanoag Indians and the Plymouth colonists in 1621. This harvest meal was actually nothing new for the Native Americans who had always given thanks and celebrated their harvest long before any Europeans arrived, but this first Thanksgiving symbolised the relationship of cooperation which had grown between the English colonists and Native Americans.

Another example of a thanksgiving ceremony involving the European settlers is the very first recorded ceremony of thanksgiving in December 1619 when a group of British settlers prayed and gave thanks to the Lord for their safe arrival. Whichever date you take as the First Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving is the same, it is a time to give thanks for harvest, the food that we have and all the blessings that God gives us. It is also a time to spend with family and friends, something that can be hard to do with our busy lives.

The Thanksgiving Meal

As I was pretty clueless about Thanksgiving dinner, I asked Daniela, our jeweller, what her family eat at Thanksgiving and she came up with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, mashed potatoes and casseroles, followed by pumpkin pie or apple pie – yum! It sounds pretty similar to the British Christmas dinner, but it is very different to the meal that would have been enjoyed at the very first Thanksgiving which definitely would not have included cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. Although we do not know exactly what was eaten in 1621, according to the History Channel historians do know that wildfowl (nearly turkey!) and venison were on the menu as both have been mentioned in primary sources.

In “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” from 1621, Edward Winslow wrote:-

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

According to the trusty History Channel, foods that would have appeared on the pilgrim’s menu include:-

  • Wild fowl – Swan, goose, duck, partridge, wild turkey, eagle and crane
  • Seafood – Lobster, cod, clams and eel
  • Fruit – Grapes and plums
  • Meat – Venison and seal
  • Vegetables – Pumpkin, carrots, onions, beans, peas, radishes and lettuce
  • Grain – Indian corn and wheat flour
  • Nuts – Acorns, Chestnuts and walnuts
  • Herbs and seasoning – Currants, parsnips, liverwort, leeks and olive oil

The meal would have been a selection of meats, as opposed to the modern Thanksgiving meal of turkey, vegetables and other side dishes. This was because there wasn’t a huge choice of vegetables available for the pilgrims and their active diet meant that their bodies could handle this more fatty diet which was also high in much needed protein. Pumpkin, if available, would have been boiled, rather than made into a pie, because the pilgrims did not have ovens.

Of course, the pilgrims didn’t sit down a festive table with the best plates and cutlery, they would have eaten with their fingers, spoons and knives, not forks. Food would have been put on the table and the pilgrims would have helped themselves from the food nearest to them and this food would also not have been served in course but served all at the same time, although puddings may have been served separately. People who were important in rank would have the best food placed near them.

So, that is a very brief rundown of the First Thanksgiving, now it’s your turn to tell me about how you celebrate Thanksgiving – come on, educate me!

Happy Thanksgiving!


15 Responses to “Thanksgiving”

  1. Melissa says:

    The first Thanksgiving is an inspiring story of hope, but from the Indians’ point of view it was just a respite in the war the Pilgrims brought with them against the Natives. Remember, the Pilgrims were the ultra-fanatical religious sect who thought Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism wasn’t tough enough-that’s why they left Europe. When they first arrived in America they kidnapped 27 Natives and brought them back to England as slaves. They accidentally left smallpox in their wake, so when they returned to Massachusetts many of the Indians in the area had been wiped out by smallpox.

    The Pilgrims had no idea how to farm the land because they were unfamiliar with the climate, and people began starving. Of the 102 original people on the Mayflower, only 53 had survived by March 1621. They resorted to raids on the Indians and even grave robbing in order to stay alive. An Indian named Tisquantum, or Squanto, who spoke English, took pity on the Pilgrims and bartered a treaty between them and the chief of the Wampanoag, Massasoit. Squanto even stayed with the Pilgrims for 18 months and taught them how to farm the Native way.

    They finally had an actual harvest! To celebrate, Pilgrim captain Myles Standish invited the Indians for a celebratory feast, aka, the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims’ chaplain was preaching about how they had a moral duty to exterminate the Indians only days before the feast, but apparently the Pilgrims were sincere. There was a cultural misunderstanding though. The Indians assumed that they were *all* invited, not just the chiefs, and when they arrived they realized there wouldn’t be enough food. Massasoit sent a contingent back to bring a proper feast to the Pilgrims, and they returned with a surplus of food, and thus Thanksgiving was able to last 3 days.

    The Pilgrims and Indians lived in peace until the death of Massasoit. The Pilgrims then raided and butchered the Wampanoag, and kept Massasoit’s son, Metacomet (whom the English called King Phillip)’ head on a pike outside their camp. In fact, many believe that Thanksgiving as an “official” feast was meant to commemorate this massacre, not the harvest meal a generation earlier.

    My Native ancestors are Cherokee, from the Carolinas; not Wampanoag from New England, but I’ve always felt more of an affinity for the Indians in this story because they get short shrift in the retelling. I remember drunkenly telling a pub full of people this story when I was in England a few years ago! I get passionate about it.

    Sorry for the long comment! Great post in general, Claire, and I cannot believe you’ve never had pumpkin pie!

  2. Jeane Westin says:

    As far back as I’ve traced my genealogy, my first American ancestor came in 1653 and settled in Maryland, although many of us hope to find a Pilgrim lurking in our past.

    I suspect we can always find wrongdoing, according to our current ideas of it, when we look back into our past, no matter what continent was in that past.

    Since I’m from the American south, I recommend sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin. To me itt has a richer taste.

    Alas, since I’ve become a vegan vegetarian, I don’t have the turkey, stuffing, etc. But I still enjoy sitting at the thanksgiving table with family and friends. It’s the begiining of a month of celebration.

    Happy Thanksgiving or Harvest Home to all Tudor friends,

    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughter:In the court of Elizabeth I

  3. Carolyn says:

    “I suspect we can always find wrongdoing, according to our current ideas of it, when we look back into our past, no matter what continent was in that past.”

    I agree, Jeane. I think most folks today use Thanksgiving as a time to get together with family and friends you may not see all the time. In my own family, pecan pie has always been more popular than pumpkin; we’ll usually have two pecan pies because everyone likes it so much. We always have ham as well as turkey, because my dad despised poultry. He said he used to like it until he was in the navy during the Korean War and was fed what he called “WWII surplus chicken in a can” much too often. It must have been bad – he wouldn’t touch chicken or turkey for the rest of his life – 50 years!

    He did love seafood, though, so my family got into the habit of putting oysters into the stuffing and occasionally would have shrimp and clams, too. I think we’re one of the few families who didn’t love the ubiquitous green bean casserole with the crunchy onions (Funyans?) on top. Which was fine with me since I despise onions in any form. We’d have the usual side dishes of corn and mashed potatoes with turkey gravy (yum!), as well as big, fluffy yeast rolls and whatever else anyone wanted to bring.

    Oh, man I’m hungry now and two more days to wait!

  4. Claire says:

    Thank you so much Melissa, Jeane and Carolyn for educating me, I’ve never even been to the US and am very jealous of you today eating all of that yummy food. I really hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your families.
    I’ve been given a recipe for pumpkin pie but it says canned pumpkin, something that we just don’t have here – can I use fresh pumkin? Should I roast the pumpkin first?? See, I’m completely clueless. Sweet potato pie sounds yummy and so does pecan pie, I need recipes please, ladies! Boy, I am so hungry now!

  5. angela says:

    Well I work 3rd shift (11 pm – 7am) stocking shelves, so I bring cookies into work, I’ve been doing that for the past few years. I then go over to one of my relatives for dinner. Because we’re Italian-Americans we also had home-made manicotti and meatballs along side the usual turkey and fixings that everyone else has. And then we had enough deserts to feed a small town. 8 pies! And then of course cookies and other stuff.

    You can make pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkins, I’ve never done it myself though. has a recipe for it.

  6. Melissa says:

    This may be the recipe Angela is taking about- -looks yummy! After all of my chatter about pumpkin pie I actually ended up having cheesecake for dessert yesterday : )

  7. Claire says:

    Cheesecake sounds nice though. Hope you enjoyed your day, Melissa, and thanks for that recipe link x

  8. Carolyn says:

    Pecan Pie

    3 slightly beaten eggs
    1 cup (8 oz – 237 ml) corn syrup (light or dark is up to you)
    2/3 cup (5.3 oz – 190 gm) granulated sugar
    1 stick (4 oz – 0.25 lb – 115 gm) butter, melted, but cooled slightly
    1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla

    Mix well, then stir in
    1 cup (8 oz – 120 gm) chopped pecans

    Pour into an unbaked pie crust. Bake in a 350ºF (180ºC) oven for 35-45 minutes,
    or until a toothpick or knife inserted near the middle comes out clean.

    I used these web sites for cooking measure conversions:

  9. lisaannejane says:

    My family celebrated Thanksgiving by going to a local restaurant. After 25 yrs of cooking, my mom had had enough. My apartment barely holds 3 people and I’ve never used the oven! You are welcome to join us any time you want – I would love to meet you in person! I promise to not cook and my mom would make you a proper cup of tea with pumpkin pie LOL!

  10. Claire says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I may just take you up on the offer some day!! I’m glad that your Mom was able to have a year off from cooking as it sounds a huge amount of work. A cup of tea with pumpkin pie sounds wonderful, I’ll let you know when I’ve booked my flight lol!!!

  11. Claire says:

    Hi Carolyn,
    I’m hungry now! That pecan pie sounds delicious and I will definitely be making it – yum!

  12. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Hi AB Friends, A very Happy Thanksgiving to all. Kind Regards Baroness

  13. Wendy says:

    Thank you Claire, Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday of the year. No gifts, just family , friends, a lot of laughter, wine, and home cooked food….lots of it. I always have between 15 and 25 people over and we have such fun. Here was what was on the menu.

    Turkey, bread stuffing with sausage and pecans, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casarole, mashed potatoes dripping with butter, noodle kugel with spiced raisins , onion and cheese pie, noodles and creamed, spinach, fresh baked rolls, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie, assorted cakes and cookies and cupcakes from an amazing bakery in NYC called Crumb….and yes we are all so stuffed.

    We have so much to be thankful for after surviving Hurricane Sandy her in New Jersey. Wishing you all the very best. I hope you can come to the States someday Vlaire and enjoys a real Thanksgiving holiday. Cheers!

  14. Claire says:

    I’d love to come to the States at Thanksgiving time and your list of food has me salivating!! Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. Claire says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Baroness!

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