Learn About Thanksgiving and Celebrate the
Holiday Where It All Started: At Plimoth Plantation
By James H. Hyde
Thanksgiving marks the beginning of each year's biggest "holiday season." It's the gateway to warmth, family togetherness and most importantly an opportunity to give thanks for what we have. But today's Thanksgiving is very different from the first one in 1621, the foundation on which today's Thanksgiving is built.
Any exploration of the first and subsequent Thanksgivings during the dawn of European existence in the New World must include the interactions between British newcomers and Native Americans.
At Plimoth Plantation precisely this is done with great and reverent sensitivity about the roles the Native Americans played during those first, fragile years.
Revisionist historians are debating traditional historians about which Thanksgiving brings us today's customs. A great deal can be learned about the history of that day in 1621 at the magnificent place where it all started, Plimoth Plantation and on it's amazing Web site.
Not enough of a positive nature can be said about Plimoth Plantation and its site. It's a living-history museum. In fact, so dedicated are the many people involved with it, you can go there and have Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day or for a Victorian dinner on Friday, the 28th. But make reservations soon (see the links below) because they are selling out fast.
The "Thanksgiving" of 1621 was, according to material written at the time, "a three-day festival of feast, drink and games." It was not the traditional day we have been taught to believe it was, and it's a pretty sure bet that none of the games was football. There had been, according to some, a crop failure in 1621, not something for which to give thanks, at least by the Pilgrims.
A visit to Geoff Metcalf's site can provide tremendous insight on this issue. Geoff is a well-known speaker who, through his research, has learned what's true what's overly polished.
The First Visit
My grandmother and grandfather first took me Plimoth Plantation when I was eight. We actually started at Plimoth Rock, which is some distance from the Plantation, and my imagination lit up like a Christmas tree at the thought that I was looking at the rock settlers, including my ancestor, John Alden, actually set foot upon as they disembarked from the Mayflower's shores boats.
My many visits since the first spark ever-greater fascination, and carry with it an odd sense of being at home. No, I'm not a believer in reincarnation, but the history here resonates from every part of the Plantation, and I imagine other descendants of Mayflower passengers may find it to be the same nexus I experience when they visit.
That's especially so as the staff wanders about in period dress going about their daily mid-17th century duties, including the care of animals that are now extremely rare. They are there to practice the crafts of old times, and each is expert, not just about their crafts, plantation or the Pilgrims. They answer questions as well about the Wampanoag People.
The Wampanoag were the first Native Americans to greet those aboard the Mayflower and teach them how to farm, among other things.
The Plantation's curators have set out to strike a very deferential balance between the Pilgrim's experiences and points of view and those of Native Americans', the Wampanoag's in particular, with whom there was considerable interaction, both friendly and not. The Plantation has also done a magnificent job of putting mirror to myth to see if an image appears in reflection.
The Plantation today is, in fact, painstakingly truth- and authenticity-oriented down to the slightest detail. There is no agenda to propagate folklore to satisfy those who align themselves with false beliefs about how archetypical the "first Thanksgiving" in 1621 really was.
Traditional belief holds that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 became an annual rite and that it was observed year-after-year thereafter to this day. Many historians, however, point out that the Pilgrims, people of high religious conviction and piety, held such celebrations in thanks to God only when there was a major paradigm shift in crop size, for instance, or the end of a long drought. To demonstrate their thanks, they often fasted, which keeps the mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, pearl onions, stuffing and turkey off the table.
The first Thanksgiving likely took place in October, according the Educational Component of the Plimoth Plantation Web site. The Plantation has brilliantly programmed this section of their site to allow children to be "The Historian." It is their task to find out what really happened on the big day.
By reading and answering questions, they follow a research vein, and, when their research is exhausted, they are able to arrive at the truth about not only the first Thanksgiving, but the Pilgrims, Wampanoag People and a great deal of history without even knowing that they're being educated. It's far more like a game. I found it wonderfully engrossing myself and would encourage people of all ages to test their knowledge about what's true and what's fanciful spin. The site section includes a Teacher's Guide and is simply magnificently done.
Plantation and revisionist historians agree that it was more likely that the first Thanksgiving was held in October and lasted for three days. From Plantation historians and those who've studied Governor Bradford's journal, we learn that there was no popcorn or cranberry sauce served up as part of the legendary fare, and no one is absolutely certain that turkey was even on the menu, much less the entrée of the feast. Several written accounts mention turkey and some do not, and therein lies the rub.
We do know that the Wampanoag People brought fresh venison to the event, sans the popcorn and cranberry sauce.
Attending, according to the Web site tells us that 90 Wampanoag men and 52 English colonists. Historians are rubbing their chins about why the Wampanoag attended given that there had been some hostilities between the arrival of the English and that Thanksgiving feast.
The curators of the Plantation and the Thanksgiving component
of the museum have taken great pains to depict the Wampanoag Native People
as accurately as possible from the collected journals, hand-me-down, generational
tales, what's been found in old trunks in ancient attics and whatever other
sources they could find.
In this country, long before English colonists arrived, Native People celebrated many different days of Thanksgiving: "Strawberry Thanksgiving" and the "Green Corn Thanksgiving" are two.
Still, historians don't know which activities went on for those three days. From the one short paragraph that was written about the celebration at the time, we know only that "they ate, drank, and played games."
In addition, Plimoth Plantation explores the evolution of Thanksgiving from its true origins, food and purpose to the splashy turkey-and-football event we know it to be today.
Located at 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Plantation and the Mayflower II, the main section of the museum, one of my all-time favorite historical sites. That I am a direct descendant of John Alden makes it all the more fascinating to me.
Available for my first visit were a small village with thatched-roofed houses and the Mayflower II. There was precious little mention of the Wampanoag. But I've watched it evolve into today's marvel. It's now an entirely different living-history museum that does a super job of presenting the true history of the colony, the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans and what life was really like there in the 1600s; available for my first visit was a mere suggestion of what it's become today, an absolute must on your itinerary if you are planning a visit to New England.
As mentioned, the Plantation comprises two separate locations:
The Plimoth Plantation, an English village designed to the
architecture and amenities of its founding. It is 3 miles south of downtown
Plymouth; and, Mayflower II, which is on the Plymouth waterfront. With the
number of passengers and crew, you'll find that sleeping, eating or just moving
around made the Mayflower II (an exact replica of the real thing) a claustrophobes'
The site comprises the following major attractions in each category. Features & Exhibits:
Wampanoag Homesite; Mayflower II; 1627 English Village; a Crafts Center; Nye Barn; Gift Shops; Wampanoag Educational Site; a Colonial Educational Site; Excellent and interactive Exhibits; Dining; Plimoth Cinema; and, the Visitor Center. And on October 10th, they added a haunted pirate ship, which is a hit with the kids.
For more information about the museum and to plan your visit there, the Plimoth Plantation Planning site section has the schedule of events.
And, if you're tired of making all the preparations for the meal yourself and want to get a taste of what a Plimoth Thanksgiving is like, I heartily recommend spending this or next Thanksgiving at the epicenter of the event, Plimoth Plantation.
To learn more about the different Thanksgiving meals served at Plimoth Plantation, click on the appropriate link below. But do it now. Two dinner slots have already completely sold out. It won't be long before the remaining ones do, as well.
Thanksgiving in the Courtyard; All-Day Thanksgiving Celebration; Thanksgiving Day Buffet; and, A Victorian Thanksgiving Dinner.
I can assure you that this is one great way to celebrate the big day and to feel the history of it as you do. A visit to the Plantation at any time will be a long-cherished remembrance as a truly great experience.