A special place at the table for Thanksgiving

By Julie Giyer
Kern Valley Sun

For many of us, Thanksgiving Day is a day we give thanks for what we have by celebrating and feasting with our families. A day for stuffing ourselves full of tasty homemade goods and then regretting the amount of food we ingested afterward. On November 28, 1621, the Plymouth Colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. It was not until 1873 that November 28 was recognized as a national holiday.

In 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England carrying 120 passengers. These colonists, today known as Pilgrims, were lured by a promise of prosperity, a chance to find a new home and land ownership in the New World. The journey was treacherous, and the New World was not what it was expected to be. The winters were harsh leaving the Pilgrims to remain on board the ship. Outbreaks of scurvy and disease overtook many of them, limiting their chances of seeing their first spring in the New World. As the seasons changed and the weather warmed, the remaining Pilgrims moved ashore. They were greeted by the Abenaki Indians, amongst them was a Pawtuxet Indian named Squanto. Squanto decided to stay with the pilgrims and help them. Weakened by malnutrition and illness, the pilgrims were taught how to catch fish, extract sap from trees, cultivate corn, and navigate life in their new environment. Squanto also helped them forge an alliance with the Wampanoag Indians.

In 1622, the Pilgrims had their first successful harvest. It was known as the “First Thanksgiving,” the Pilgrims invited their newfound Indian allies to a celebratory feast in honor of the successful harvest. The feast lasted three days. It is unknown what foods were prepared and served at the feast.
The Pilgrims held their second feast in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought that had threatened harvest and in turn prompted a religious fast. Thanksgiving was intended to be a fast, not a feast. The Pilgrims mostly recognized the “giving of thanks” in the form of prayer and abstaining from food. The Wampanoag Indians brought in their traditions of food, dancing, and games helping to create what was practiced thereafter. Religious fasting before the feast every year became a common practice in many of the New England settlements and still applies for many today.

In 1789, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the successful conclusion to the country’s war for independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Traditionally, Thanksgiving has lost much of its religious significance and now focuses more on cooking and meal sharing with family and friends. The turkey, which may or may not have even been offered in the Pilgrims feast, became a Thanksgiving staple. Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans continents, cultures, and centuries.