How the traditional Thanksgiving feast has evolved over centuries

The history of Thanksgiving has been muddled, debunked, and rewritten throughout history, but here’s why we carve a turkey and mash some potatoes each year.

Every fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather around tables covered with turkey, potatoes, cranberries, stuffing, and more. Over the feast, they share what they’re most thankful for from the previous year. Some also celebrate the day by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or a football game or even by running a 5K race.

But that’s not how Thanksgiving has always been celebrated. The holiday and the traditions behind it have evolved—from a much-mythologized 1621 harvest feast shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, to a post-Civil-War era patriotic and religious gathering, to the modern holiday focused on good food and spending time with family.

The real history of the first Thanksgiving

 Historians long considered the first Thanksgiving to have taken place in 1621, when the Mayflower pilgrims who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts sat down for a three-day meal with the Wampanoag. However, the meal wasn’t the meaningful symbol of peace that it was later portrayed to be—rather, it was likely just a routine English harvest celebration.

In 1841, Boston publisher Alexander Young printed a book containing a letter by pilgrim Edward Winslow, which described the feast:

“[O]ur harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together … [There were] many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

Winslow didn’t describe the feast as a “Thanksgiving,” which at the time was considered a period of prayerful fasting. But when Young published the letter, he dubbed the meal the “first Thanksgiving” in a footnote, and the name stuck.

But the reason for that first feast was not a happy one—and the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was fraught. When the pilgrims first arrived in 1620, they were unprepared and had little food, so they robbed corn from Native Americans graves and storehouses.

In November 1621, the Wampanoag heard the pilgrims shooting off guns—which historians believe worried the Wampanoag that war was underway. King Massasoit sent 90 men to investigate, before realizing the pilgrims were mid-celebration. The Wampanoag then hunted deer meat and joined the festivities.

The newfound peace between the pilgrims and Wampanoag was driven largely by tribe and trade rivalries, according to Ann McMullen, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, who says that the Wampanoag realized an alliance with the pilgrims “could fortify their strength.”

But food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson says that peace didn’t last long: By 1637, the detente between the pilgrims and Wampanoag had disintegrated and the pilgrims started a decades-long war with their Indigenous neighbors. Ultimately, the colonists massacred the local tribes, including the Wampanoag.

How Thanksgiving became a modern holiday

 Over the years, the word “thanksgiving” has changed in meaning. Originally an English tradition, days of thanksgiving typically were marked by religious services to give thanks to God, or to celebrate a bountiful harvest.

The first recorded religious thanksgiving day in Plymouth took place a full two years after the 1621 feast. It celebrated the end of a two-month drought, according to 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. Later thanksgivings celebrated military victories over Native Americans.

At the time, thanksgiving days were usually declared by governors or priests. George Washington frequently declared days of thanksgiving during his tenure as general of the Continental Army. Once he became president, Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789.

But many subsequent presidents ignored the tradition, until President Abraham Lincoln again established Thanksgiving as a national holiday during the Civil War, cementing the feast as an American tradition. Johnson says that declaration marked the switch from random feast days, some marking the fall harvest, to a national holiday.

Lincoln was partially convinced by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the magazine Godey’s Lady Book, who wrote a letter campaigning for an annual Thanksgiving holiday. He was also looking for a way to gloss over the schism created by the Civil War and homogenize an American identity, Johnson says. But the holiday wasn’t celebrated universally—particularly not in the Southern states that saw it as a Yankee holiday.

After the Civil War, however, the holiday became imbued with nostalgia for the mythological founding of America at Plymouth Rock. The true story of the pilgrims and Native Americans was not widely recorded or even accessible, so stories of benevolent pilgrims conquering and founding the country were being passed off as history, Johnson says.

Indeed, much 19th-century artwork and reenactments of the first Thanksgiving depicted the Native Americans as savages with woven blankets and large feather headdresses based off tribes from other regions. They also changed the typical dress of pilgrims to depict their “religious intensity and bravery.”

After Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving typically took place on the last Thursday in November. But in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to move it up a week in hopes of allowing more time for Christmas shopping and stimulate the post-Depression economy.

“It becomes tied to a commercial aspect and we get Black Friday,” Johnson says. “That’s when it gets divorced from the religious and civic reasons behind it.”

But Roosevelt’s new Thanksgiving date was confusing for Americans. In 1941, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution that established the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. For many who celebrate now, the holiday has become an excuse to gather with family and eat good food. 

But for many Native Americans, the holiday invokes a legacy of racism, violence, genocide, and mistreatment. In the 1970s, right around the bicentennial of the U.S., Native people began to gather on the holiday to hold a day of mourning instead—a tradition known as Unthanksgiving Day.

How turkey took center stage

The 1621 harvest celebration had a menu of venison, corn, shellfish, cornmeal, beans, nuts, dried berries, pumpkin—and, yes, turkey. 

Turkey is one of the Thanksgiving dishes that can easily be traced to the first Thanksgiving. According to the fifth edition of Holiday Symbols and Customs, the pilgrims and Native Americans likely hunted and served wild fowl, like geese, duck, or turkey. The native, large bird was relatively easy to capture, so it quickly became an important source of food for early American settlers.

It’s unclear if the turkey was roasted on a spit, braised, or boiled in a large kettle at that harvest gathering, like the methods for cooking that were recorded later. But it’s likely that the remains of whatever birds were roasted one day were thrown in a pot and boiled to make a broth for the next day, similar to gravy.

The custom of snapping the turkey's wishbone, bringing luck to the person who gets the larger half, can be traced back to the Romans. It was certainly a well-established tradition in England by the time the Pilgrims brought it to America.

From the 17th through the early 19th century, the presence of three or four kinds of meat was important to emphasize that a meal was a feast. However, the turkey has long taken center stage—and was given a boost after World War II with a full-scale marketing campaign for the bird. Now, Americans eat more than 690 million pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving, according to Holiday Symbols and Customs.

How the Thanksgiving menu has evolved

It’s likely that the pilgrims had stuffing at their early harvest feasts, as evidenced by old colonial cookbook recipes. Pilgrims called stuffing “puddings in the belly” and typically added herbs, hardened egg yolks, grated bread, cream, raisins or currants, sugar, spices, and nuts. However, the traditional method of cooking the stuffing in the bird may not have been used because using a spit did not lead to even cooking.

The tradition of serving pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, the most iconic of the pies, may have also been an important early American holiday staple. Native Americans introduced pilgrims to the gourd, so it’s likely that pilgrims ate boiled pumpkin with seasonings at the first Thanksgiving since the required flour, sugar, and molasses was not available.

However, jellied cranberry sauce was not likely to be had at early Thanksgivings because of a scarcity of sugar. Since the berry grew wild in New England bogs, though, it could have been mashed into sauces for the meat or mixed into stuffings. Mashed potatoes and other dishes are also a more recent tradition for Thanksgiving meals.

Hale was arguably the most influential in crafting the classic New England Thanksgiving meal. In her 1827 novel Northwood, she described a meal of roast turkey with stuffing and gravy, and later printed recipes for pumpkin pie in Godey’s Lady Book. However, for a brief period in the 20th century, Victorian passion for elegance changed Thanksgiving menus to include French cuisine and foods that modern technology made available, like ice cream and oysters.

Although Thanksgiving is often associated with these regional dishes from New England, where the pilgrims made their home, they are far from the only foods that grace the table. Many families also serve dishes important to their culture or family. Macaroni and cheese sits front and center at many holiday tables, while others enjoy tamales, an indigenous dish consisting of stuffed masa wrapped in leaves or husks. Today, most Americans finish off the meal with a slice of pie, which may be sweet potato or pecan if you’re in the South, and a dollop of whipped cream.

But regardless of what graces your holiday table, Johnson says it’s important for Americans to educate themselves on the true history of the holiday, which has been distorted and reshaped through the years alongside cultural shifts.

“It’s tough to reconcile with that history … because Thanksgiving has kind of an apocryphal mythology around it,” Johnson says. However, she says, most Americans today no longer celebrate that myth of the first Thanksgiving anyway. “They’re just celebrating family.”

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