By Mike Breen

Thanksgiving Trivia

November 24, 2021
Column: Parallel Thinking

Famed English writer Samuel Johnson once said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

Well, another year has zipped by and we are again facing the one day of the year when nobody puts up a façade of worrying about calories—Thanksgiving.

To enrich the dialog at your family table, here is my annual reminder of the history of Thanksgiving.

Who were “the 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 homes in England and sailed to Holland (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.

Seeking a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company 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.

The harvest of 1621

The Pilgrims set ground 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 had sailed on the Mayflower.

But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast—including 91 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 for three days.

Let’s talk “turkey”

Then-Governor William Bradford sent “four men fowling” after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain that they had venison. The term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.

Another modern staple at almost every modern Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie. But it is unlikely that the first feast included this treat.

The supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop.

There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There were no domestic cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous.

But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.

This “thanksgiving” feast was not repeated the following year.

But in 1623, during a severe drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their Indian friends.

June 20, 1676

It wasn’t until June of 1676 that another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.

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 the Indians, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the “heathen natives.”

100 years later

October of 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.

Sarah Josepha Hale

George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it.

There was discord among the colonies, many feeling that 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.

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.

1863: President Abraham Lincoln makes it official

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 couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season.

Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later.

And in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, on the fourth Thursday in November.

What the Pilgrims did NOT have on their first Thanksgiving table

To compare and contrast what our table looks like, versus the Thanksgiving table of the Pilgrims, here is a list of  what the Pilgrims did NOT have on the first Thanksgiving.

Some perhaps startling omissions from the authentic Thanksgiving menu include:

  • Ham  (The Pilgrims most likely did not have pigs with them).
  • Sweet Potatoes—Potatoes—Yams  (These had not yet been introduced to New England).
  • Corn on the cob (Indian corn was only good for making cornmeal, not eating on the cob).
  • Popcorn  (Contrary to popular folklore, popcorn was not introduced at the 1621 Thanksgiving.  Indian corn could only be half-popped, and this wouldn’t have tasted very good.)
  • Cranberry sauce  (Cranberries were available, but sugar was not.)
  • Pumpkin Pie  (They probably made a pumpkin pudding of sorts, sweetened by honey or syrup, which would be like the filling of a pumpkin pie, but there would be no crust or whipped topping.)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, and to all those in need of food and employment!


Mike Breen is a Florida-based Catholic, a brilliant marketer whose career includes serving top Fortune 500 brands, the provocateur of Parallel Thinking, and the author of... MORE »