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Myths Served for Thanksgiving Dinner

Profs Talk Turkey About America’s Holiday

Modern Thanksgiving celebrations often include fancy table runners, glassware and place cards. In Plymouth, surely the celebration was far more primitive.

11/17/2010
By Sheila Eppolito

The images of the first Thanksgiving — purportedly held in Plymouth between happy and friendly Native Americans and Pilgrims — are iconic. Greeting cards picture long, elegantly appointed tables bursting with food.  Each year, Americans dutifully try to recreate the wonder of the image ߝ shopping, peeling and cooking — albeit with the aid of microwaves and cans of French fried onions.

But what was Thanksgiving really like? Was there a feast? Who went? What did they eat? We asked Interim Dean and English Prof. Melissa Pennell (MP) and Asst. History Prof. Abby Chandler (AC) to help us understand.

Q.  The first Thanksgiving was planned to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first year, and it was held in late November, right?

MP: There is no detailed record of an actual feast that took place — it was probably a celebration of a successful harvest, which meant a lot to the English, after they suffered through the “starving time” of their first winter and spring in New England. Englishman Edward Winslow recorded that about 90 Native Americans joined the English at their harvest festival and that it lasted for three days, not just one.

Q.  Were there elaborate tables and delectable food?

MP: The tables would have been rustic at best. The English brought little furniture other than storage chests — people would have gathered around tables made after their arrival and would have eaten with knives and their hands. Forks were not in common use in England or the colonies at the time. For food, they did have turkey, but they also ate waterfowl, venison and maize.

Q.  Dessert?

MP: Sorry, no pies. They hadn’t yet constructed ovens, and probably didn’t have milled flour for crust.

Q. Thanksgiving started without ulterior motives, right? Just a nice, American holiday?

AC:  I believe that Thanksgiving was used as Civil War propaganda — the Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims are in the North, therefore Northerners are the real Americans whose union should be maintained. Thanksgiving’s energetic proponent was Sarah Josepha Hale.

MP: Yes. Hale and some of her contemporaries were interested in promoting a celebration of America’s colonial history as a means of helping to define an American identity and the roots of American patriotism.

Q. Who was Sarah Josepha Hale?

AC: Sarah Josepha Hale drove a one-woman campaign to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. Hale — a well-educated Northerner — served as editor of the highly influential “Godey’s Ladies Book.” This magazine helped her promote the belief that New England virtues were the model for the rest of the country to follow, and to espouse her view that women could wield significant influence through their control of the domestic front, something she dubbed the “women’s sphere.” She was a strong advocate of America and the union. She lobbied for 17 years to make Thanksgiving a national holiday ߝwriting Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan before winning over President Abraham Lincoln.

Q. What’s the story with Plymouth Rock?

MP: The rock may be one of the best marketing ploys ever. First of all, the Pilgrims landed at what is now Provincetown first, so the idea of the “first” rock they stood on being in Plymouth is inaccurate. Also, to think that they set a particular rock aside as a memento is unbelievable.

AC: Ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce is said to have identified the rock when he learned that a wharf was to be built over it. He asked friends to carry him to the water’s edge to “take a last farewell of the cherished object.” When they reached it, he tearfully informed the crowd that his father had assured him the rock had “received the footsteps” of the Pilgrims on their arrival. But it’s clear that not only did they first land near the tip of Cape Cod, nobody knows which rock they did or didn’t step on.

Q. Is it true that the songs “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” both have local ties?

MP: Yes. “Over the River” was written by Lydia Marie Child and published in 1844 under the title “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day.” It recalled trips to her grandfather’s house in Medford, during her own childhood. It was later set to music and became a popular holiday song.

AC: “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was written by the same Sarah Josepha Hale who promoted Thanksgiving as a holiday. It was based on a true incident that happened in Sterling when little Mary Sawyer took her pet lamb to school one day at the urging of her brother. The pet disrupted the order of the schoolhouse, much to the delight of the other students.