Thanksgiving: Then and now

By Brandie Piper

Turkey is a staple at most American Thanksgiving Day meals. So are cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie and many other foods. But today’s Thanksgiving meal is quite different from what the pilgrims ate in 1621 at the first autumn harvest feast held in what would later become the United States.

A year before that historic feast, the Mayflower set sail with about 100 pilgrims from Plymouth, England, to the New World. Only about half survived the journey and made it through the first winter. The remaining pilgrims were taught survival skills by Native Americans, and at the end of summer 1621, the pilgrims and Native Americans joined together for a three-day feast celebrating a successful harvest. But the feast the pilgrims prepared nearly 400 years ago was quite different from the feast we come to expect today.

According to, the pilgrims and Native Americans certainly ate wildfowl. That’s where the similarities with modern-day feasts ends. Only two documents detailing the meal are still in existence, and they say that in addition to poultry, the feasters dined on grain corn, which was used for bread or porridge, and venison. That doesn’t mean that’s all they ate at the meals, it’s just all that was mentioned in two surviving letters sent by settlement leaders to their families still in England.

Historians say it’s likely onions were also part of the celebration – maybe even stuffed inside the birds with herbs. Shelled chestnuts, eels, and shellfish were also common foods of the day.

Some things that were certainly missing: pies (they didn’t have butter or flour to make pastry dough), potatoes (white or sweet), and cranberry sauce. says it took another 50 years for someone to make a sauce from boiled cranberries mixed with sugar.

In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November an official holiday called Thanksgiving. For two years during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping window, but after public complaints and 16 states refusing to move the holiday, he moved Thanksgiving back to the day we celebrate it today.

Thanksgiving’s non-religious affiliation and relative ease of celebrating makes it a popular holiday nationwide. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel days of the year in the United States.

But despite the chaos encountered by modern-day Thanksgiving celebrants, the holiday remains centered on eating good food, engaging in good conversation with family and friends, and giving thanks for all of life’s blessings.

Published Nov. 25, 2015 on

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