The elements of Thanksgiving

James Baker, senior historian at Plimoth Plantation, once wrote, “The reason we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition.” The holiday known as Thanksgiving took a few hundred years to metamorphose into the feast it is today, a remnant of the harvest festivals of ancient times.

According to All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life, the forerunner of the American Thanksgiving is the English Harvest Home tradition, which included feasting as part of the celebration of bringing in the last of the crops from the field. Harvest Home and other European harvest festivals were directly related to Roman traditions honoring Ceres, the goddess of wheat. The Puritans who settled Plymouth did not approve of festival and ritual celebrations because they considered them idolatrous. However, when they feasted in 1621 after the harvest was gathered, they were in step with their British heritage.

The first Thanksgiving feast was held after the colonists’ first winter in the New World. In July 1623, an additional day of Thanksgiving was called for. This was a religious day of fasting, prayer and somber reflection. Until the 17th century, when the two traditions commingled, the public days of Thanksgiving were religious fast days, with separate days set aside for feasting. The Thanksgiving known today emerged directly from these events.

The differences between Thanksgivings past and present include the types of foods served and the way they were presented. For instance, the first Thanksgiving spread didn’t include as many vegetables as one might find on the table today. They were not a part of the feast mentality. Also, depending on the time of year, the selection of vegetables wasn’t very large. The turkey was not the center of the meal, since there was also plenty of seal, swan, lobster and venison available.

In the 17th century, foods were served directly onto the table; people ate food from the table using spoons, knives and fingers. The idea of sampling a variety of foods during the Thanksgiving dinner is also at odds with the way the meal would have been served. In the 17th century, social standing dictated what a person ate; the best food was positioned next to the most important people. People ate whatever was in close proximity.

The family traditions and foods on the table may now be different from early celebrations, but the philosophy behind Thanksgiving – appreciation of good food and gratitude for life and family – is generally still agreed upon.

“-Turkey, family coming together, giving thanks for various things such as living through another year, good health and having everyone together,” junior Marvette Harrigan said. “Our family has a great time talking and making jokes. We rarely see each other, so this is a time to catch up and talk about the old days.”

For some families, it’s the one day of the year when everyone will eat the same meal at the same table in the same room.

“It’s a day where the whole family gathers for a meal. I moved out, my sister’s in college – it’s the only day besides Christmas Day that we’re all together,” said senior Joe Tommasini.

Although the ideology behind Thanksgiving is well known, each household seems to have a different style or unique way of celebrating the holiday.

“My parents are from the Caribbean and they adapted to the American celebration of Thanksgiving. We don’t really have turkey or ham because that’s not something they enjoy. Instead, my family gathers together and makes lots of Jamaican dishes and then we feast,” junior L. Thomas Collins said.

While some families may carry out specific traditions, many do not.

“We just sort of get together. It’s a family gathering, but we don’t watch football; we don’t say prayers. It’s sort of a generic American turkey meal. It’s mainly a time for ourselves,” said Andrew Berish, visiting assistant professor for the department of humanities and American Studies.

“(Our family tradition consists of) pretty much cooking absolutely too much food for the four of us. My dad buys at least a 30-pound turkey for four people. For the next two months, every time you come to my parents’ house, you can’t get past the door without my mom saying, ‘Turkey sandwich?'” Tommasini said.

Even if the premise of a first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoying a potluck meal is difficult to swallow, Thanksgiving has become a respected and venerated holiday. “In the back of my mind, I know about the myth of the first Thanksgiving. It’s hard to believe in. Now it’s been replaced with football and after-Thanksgiving shopping,” Berish said.

Some feel Thanksgiving is not given enough recognition.

“-Turkey day’s not even over yet, and in all the stores, the Christmas displays are already up,” Tommasini said.

Whatever one’s position on the origins of Thanksgiving or the commercialization of various holidays, there can be no harm in selecting one day out of the year to gather with family, express gratitude for life and health and to enjoy good food.

“I believe that Thanksgiving is the second biggest holiday next to Christmas,” Harrigan said. “I don’t know if the tradition about the pilgrims is still the basis for the holiday. In my opinion, it is now more about having family around and enjoying and eating together.”

Additional source: