The History of Thanksgiving

Turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, and apple cider? Sound familiar? You got it.

The meal of Thanksgiving is a hearty one, shared with friends and family. You know the star of the meal, the turkey, but have you ever wondered how the first ever Thanksgiving was celebrated? It was nothing like the one we have today, that’s for sure.

You’ve probably heard of the Pilgrims, traveling across treacherous oceans on the famous Mayflower to reach Plymouth, escaping from religious persecution. It all started in 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

First off, turkey wasn’t the bird of choice for the first Thanksgiving meal. It is suspected by researchers that duck, geese, swans, or a now extinct bird named passenger pigeons would be the main wild bird of choice. It is possible that the birds were stuffed, though probably not with bread. The Pilgrims instead stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs.

In addition to wild birds and deer, the colonists and Wampanoag probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels. They had a well-balanced diet, with chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts. They also grew beans, pumpkins, and squashes. All this, naturally, begs a follow-up question. So how did the Thanksgiving menu evolve into what it is today?

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. She is also famous as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents to make it a national holiday. Finally, she pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. In 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday, a day to give thanks.

Throughout her campaign, Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey’s Lady’s Book. She also published close to a dozen cookbooks. Hale is readying women to accept the idea of Thanksgiving, and instructing them what to cook. And the Thanksgiving food that we think of today — including roast turkey, creamed onions, mashed turnips, even some of the mashed potato dishes? You can find them in her cookbook.

-Katharine L.

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