The First Thanksgiving and Other Fun Facts

The plane trip was fun, the airline food was okay but the wine more than made up for the mediocre Coq Au Vin. The trip is over 2700 miles and takes only 6 hours or so nowadays. Now think back to a time when it would take over two months and would be a tireless journey with rats occasionally peeking out of the hold and food that had started to rot. That’s what the first settlers of our nation had to look forward to as they crossed the Atlantic from England to the New World. The total group of settlers got to share a deck the size of a tennis ball court with only the occasional trip to the upper deck to relieve their boredom and cramped quarters.

It took 66 days to travel the 2750 miles across the ocean, with the crew of sailors the only ones who were doing anything. Among the group three women were pregnant and had their children either on board or in the New World. Some people got sick on board and most were miserable, rough seas and the constant rocking of the ship a sharp contrast to todays quick and modern means of travel.

The Separatists had fled religious persecution and longed for the freedom of the new world. They pulled up roots and put down money for a better life and risked everything they owned and their lives for a better way of life. Then they had to sit and wait as the crew worked on the decks above them to get them to their promised new land. There were 104 people who had followed their dream and wished for the freedom from religion that we now enjoy aboard the Mayflower when it left Plymouth England on September 6th, 1620. The Mayflower made it to the Cape Cod area on November 9th and they made landfall on the 11th of November. Although we have an exact number of the Pilgrims and their names, we only know the names of some of the 30 or so crew members.

The first thanksgiving was a celebration by the Pilgrims that had survived the devastating illnesses of the first winter and the successful harvest of that first year at their new home. With the help of the local Native Americans showing them how to farm the native crops and hunt and fish, they made a bountiful harvest and wanted to celebrate. This traditional meal was not made an annual event then, though. It took many more years till it became our traditional feast. George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving much later on in 1789 but it wasn’t until a magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale wrote editorials and letters in Boston Lady’s Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. She wished to see a day of Thanksgiving proclaimed and after forty years of her efforts President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November for it. In 1941, Congress sanctioned the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, our National holiday.

Back at the time of the first Thanksgiving, they did not have the traditional foods that we have now. Turkey was not a regular of the tables back then, the Pilgrims called any wild fowl “turkey”. They had no dairy products what so ever as they had not brought cattle with them. No milk or cream, even their potatoes had to go butterless, for any that ate them. Some considered the newly found potato as poisonous. The traditional pumpkin pie would only have been some kind of baked or boiled pumpkin dish as the flour that had been brought over from england was long gone, so no pastries or breads of any kind. The Indians showed them how to make several kinds of foods out of corn though, a type of fried bread was probably a staple of their diet by then. The feasts would include fish, berries, fruit, clams, lobster and venison. Not exactly what we consider traditional holiday fare but they were thankful they could eat in plenty.

The turkey has become one of the biggest parts of our Thanksgiving traditions, but it almost wasn’t. Benjamin Franklin wanted to have the American Turkey as our national symbol. He protested the naming of the Bald Eagle, saying the Bald Eagle had bad moral character and the noble turkey was a better symbol for our country. If the Turkey had become our national symbol, would we want to roast it for our meal on Thanksgiving?

The original pumpkin pie was not like it is today. The native Indians that had lived in America back then used pumpkins extensively in their meals. It was a good source of food and was easy to grow and farm. They cooked it in many ways and one that was a favorite was to bake it whole after scooping out the insides. Later milk was tossed in along with honey and then flour, making a kind of pumpkin pie, like we now have today.

Cranberries are an odd fruit, harvested in water. Cranberries grow on vines of small plants like strawberries in wetlands, it is native to North America. The fruit is harvested from coast to coast with Wisconsin and Massachusetts being the biggest producers. Recently over a half a billion pounds have been produced yearly. They require a lot of water and need very wet soil to grow such as in a bog or swamp. Harvest is typically a novel approach to an old problem. In recent years growers of cranberries have come up with a new way to harvest the fruit, they grow the cranberries in low fields with lots of water running into them. And then flood the fields when harvesting begins. A tractor with special attachments drives through the field to uproot the berries and pull them off the vines. This makes the berries float to the surface of the newly created pond and then they pump the fruit into tanks to process at a plant.

Another tradition that has been a favorite is the stuffing in a turkey, or out of it. Some say it is better to cook the stuffing inside a bird but others are sure the best way is to cook it separately. It comes from the middle ages where it was called farce, or to stuff. Originally farce was a term used to describe a light hearted play that would occur between the lengthy religious productions to keep the audience from being bored. Whether it is called stuffing or dressing it comes from the related terms of farce or force meat, a chopped spiced meat mixture we know today as sausage. The upper crust of society in the late 1800’s didn’t like the term stuffing so began to call it dressing, a way to dress up the term of placing something inside a dead bird and cook it.

Whether you gather to give thanks for the years harvest or just to have fun with friends and family and watch some football, the holidays are a time for celebration. Have some fun and remember to take the time to give thanks for all that you have and give a thought to those that don’t, maybe help out some as a part of your thanks.

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