Thanksgiving: the Pilgrim viewpoint

Forget the cranberry sauce. And the pumpkin pie. And while you're at it, trash the storybook histories. Then ask a local Pilgrim when and how he will be celebrating Thanksgiving. The response may be surprising.

For at Plimoth Plantation -- a mock 17th-century village constructed in this town 35 miles south of Boston -- the ``Pilgrims'' one encounters answer just as the real Pilgrims would have in 1627, the year chosen for the Plantation's reconstruction.

``It's not a set day,'' explains Margaret Snowden-Messinger of Hingham, Mass., a Plantation employee who portrays Mary Moorecock, a servant indentured to Goodman John Winslow. ``It's whenever an occasion occurs,'' she says, her brogue gathering strength with each word.

``There was a thanksgivin' before aye come here, I think in [1622 or 1623] -- that summer they didn't have rain for five or six weeks and all the crops here would have died if it didn't rain. So they did fast and humiliate themselves before the Lord, to find in what way they had offended Him that He should thus destroy their crops. After the day of humiliation, it did start to rain . . . so they gave thanks the followin' day for that happenin'.''

A pause. ``Aye, but there's not been one since then. It would have to be an occasion what should merit it.''

And so in the world of 1627 Plymouth, the 20th-century inquirer soon learns, thanksgiving is no annual, routine celebration. And, moreover, when it is celebrated, it's no holiday.

In a typically dark, one-room house across the village's main thoroughfare, Mistress Barbara Standish (played by Kathleen Rawlins of Cohasset, Mass.) explains further, while scrubbing the scum from her dishwashing pot.

``The Saints believe that the only holy days [holidays] which the Bible calls for honoring are the Sabbath and days of fasting and thanksgiving. The other holy days are something that man has thought up,'' she explains, her unabashed separatist creed showing itself.

``The calendar that the Church of England doth follow,'' she continues, ``follows the Christian year and celebrates the birth of Christ, Lent, Good Friday, Easter. And a Saint will tell you you ought to be rememberin' those things all through the year -- on every day, not just on these special days.'' Then with a sigh: ``But I do miss celebratin'.''

In essence, these Pilgrims emphasize the deeply religious tone of the thanksgiving celebration -- an emphasis echoed by Carolyn Freeman Travers, a research librarian at Plimoth Plantation.

By Pilgrim definition, she says, ``a day of thanksgiving is never a day that is by rote. It would never be the fourth Thursday of November. They would think you were very odd if you said that. [They might ask] how can you know you'll want to celebrate a day of thanksgiving on that day? [The Pilgrims' thanksgiving was] declared by the government -- with the advice of the church.''

Ms. Travers explains further that Thanksgiving as it is known in the 20th century is really the blending of several Colonial traditions: the day of thanksgiving (as defined by the Pilgrims) and the harvest festival -- the celebration of an unusually successful harvest, which may have included as much as three straight days of feasting and games.

Unfortunately, she says, what is commonly regarded now as the first thanksgiving had, in fact, little trace of what the Pilgrims would have considered a day of thanksgiving. Rather, it was a harvest festival -- their first harvest festival in the New World -- which they celebrated one year after their arrival, in the autumn of 1621.

And Travers notes that even at that harvest festival, the food at the celebration would have only somewhat resembled fare of the modern Thanksgiving. Among other things, the Pilgrims would have eaten wild fowl (including turkey), Indian corn, venison, and seafood. But she says the cranberry sauce would have been sour (sugar was in fairly common use as a spice but not as a sweetener) and would have been made as a ``pudding in the belly,'' that is, poultry stuffing. And the pumpkin pie would have tasted more like squash than a dessert.

The Pilgrims themselves, she says, would consider July 30, 1623, as their first thanksgiving, for that is the date on which they gave thanks to their God for deliverance from a drought. Such a celebration would have been religious in character, marked by attendance at church, prayers at home, and probably fasting.

But, Travers concludes, the obvious differences between modern and Pilgrim notions of thanksgiving have so far gone unnoticed. History, she says, still paints the wrong picture. ``The historians [say], `We've had this day of Thanksgiving since we can remember. Where does it come from?' And they look back at Plymouth and say, `Food, neighbors, games, Christian community. That must be the first thanksgiving.' ''

Plimoth Plantation is near the town of Plymouth, just off Massachusetts Route 3, about 40 minutes south of Boston. The Plantation is open April 1 to Nov. 30 (this year through Dec. 1), from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The late Henry Hornblower II of Boston was instrumental in getting Plimoth reconstruction under way. In 1949, the first house went up along the waterfront with the rest of the reconstructin taking place in the 1950s. The Plimoth reconstruction date of 1627 was not arbitrarily chosen. During that year Isaac de Rasieres traveled from New Amsterdam (now New York City) to visit the village and wrote a lengthy letter in Dutch describing the settlement. The reconstruction was patterned after this lette r. A settlement census dated 1627 also exists, enabling reconstruction personnel to know the names and family units of that time. Approximately 300,000 visitors annually tour this living history museum.

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