November 20, 2019

We Don't Celebrate Thanksgiving Because of The Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is the ultimate New England holiday. It has deep historical roots in this region and the menu, with its emphasis on turkey, pies, root vegetables, and cranberry sauce, draws upon traditional Yankee cookery. But what are the true origins of the holiday?

As children Americans are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims. Surprisingly that is not true. It is true that in the autumn of 1621 the Plymouth colonists held a feast in honor of their first successful harvest in Massachusetts. They feasted upon corn, wild fowl, and five deer that were brought to the feast by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and ninety of his men. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag partied for three straight days. I'm sure everyone had a big food hangover.


However, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of this harvest festival. We celebrate Thanksgiving because of Puritan religious culture. The Puritans, both in England and here in North America, did not celebrate many holidays. Christmas? No thanks. St. Valentine's Day? No way. Halloween? Definitely not! Unlike the Catholics and Anglicans they mainly celebrated what were known as 'providential holidays.' These were holidays announced to commemorate significant events in a given year. For example if things went poorly (plagues, droughts, military defeat) the Puritan leaders would announce a fast day. People were expected to abstain from eating, attend religious services and atone for their sins. 

On the other hand when things went well (military victory, end of a plague, etc.) a day of Thanksgiving would be announced. People would feast with their families, give thanks for their blessings, and (again) attend religious services. It's important to note that Thanksgiving days always occurred on weekdays, lasted for one day only, and involved religious services. It's also important to note that some years had multiple Fast days and Thanksgivings, depending on what was happening. Some years might have none at all. They were declared as needed.

Here are some examples. In 1630 the Puritans in Boston declared five fast days from April through June but only one Thanksgiving day on July 8. In Scituate there were 34 fast days from 1634 - 1653, but only nine Thanksgivings. Over time the practice of providential holidays gradually spread from Puritan New England to the other American colonies. John Hancock, leader of the Continental Congress, declared July 20, 1775 as a fast day for the thirteen colonies. In 1777 December 18 was declared a Thanksgiving day for all the colonies. When George Washington became the first president he proclaimed two Thanksgivings: November 11, 1789 and Thursday, February 19, 1795. After the Civil War Thanksgiving finally became an official, regularly occurring national holiday.

I know that's a lot of dates but the important thing is that Thanksgiving was celebrated at many times and for many different reasons. It didn't have one origin and it was not celebrated to commemorate the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth. The Pilgrims did not become linked with Thanksgiving in popular American culture until the early 1900s, several decades after the account of their 1621 feast was rediscovered by historians in 1820. 


Here's the really strange part: technically the 1621 harvest celebration was not even a day of Thanksgiving. It didn't involve any religious services and it lasted for a full three days rather than just one. It did not meet the criteria for a Puritan Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving, and other Puritans wouldn't have recognized it as such. It was just a harvest celebration. 

The Plymouth harvest celebration was initially declared the first Thanksgiving by Reverend Alexander Young in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Reverend Young's claim slowly gained popularity and is now widely accepted as fact. I only learned otherwise when I read James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). Baker was a historian at Plimoth Plantation who was puzzled that he couldn't find any sources connecting the Pilgrims to Thanksgiving earlier than the 19th century. When he started to research he realized why.

I love myths and legends, and even if we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Pilgrims their story has still become an important part of the holiday. The aspirational image of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasting together is a model of something we should all strive for in our holiday celebration and our lives.


Robert Mathiesen said...

The first settlers of Plymouth weren't actually Puritans, but Separatists--far more radical than Puritans in their ideas of church organization, and somewhat more tolerant of lay-folk exploring theological subjects on their own. Some of them (e.g. Isaac Allerton) even came from from Brownist families. There is also some reason to think that they may have allowed women to speak up in church as well as men, unlike the Puritans.

jonjim1952 said...

Yes I concur on your idea that the early Indigenous people and early settlers's celebration is a model that we should arrive for in both celebrations and in our lives.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Robert! Thanks for the comment. You are of course absolutely right about the Pilgrims. Interestingly there were almost no witch trials in Plymouth Colony so maybe their theological tolerance had a role there?

Peter Muise said...

Hi JonJim thanks for the comment. It was like one brief Utopian moment around the dinner table. I wish it had lasted longer!

Robert Mathiesen said...

Hi Peter! I'm pretty sure that witch-trials do correlate strongly with Puritanism in old New England. There are basically four theologically distinct areas in 17th-century New England. The Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Haven Colony, and Connecticut Colony. (Connecticut was settled out of Massachusetts; New Haven was an independent venture directly from old England.) The Separatists settled old Plymouth Colony, which was swallowed up by Puritan Massachusetts Bay in 1691, but retained its distinct ethos for quite a long time thereafter. Roger Williams ensured that the Colonies of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations remained open to all religions (including non-Christian ones). And what I think of as the "Northern Fringe" (roughly, modern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont) was fundamentally devoted to profitable activities like fishing and trade, and had little use for theological arguments. Witch-trials occurred (almost without a single exception) only in the Puritan colonies.

The same Puritan/non-Puritan divide is also reflected in cemetery location. Towns in the Puritan colonies had town burying-grounds, as a rule next to the town church. Extended families in Rhode Island and the Northern Fringe generally buried their own dead somewhere on their own land in many hundreds of small private cemeteries. I'm not sure which pattern prevailed throughout Plymouth Colony, though the town of Plymouth itself had a town burying-groun ("Burial Hill").

Peter Muise said...

Robert, just a couple more thoughts on the the distribution of witch trials. There weren't a lot of witch trials from Plymouth/Cape Cod, but there is a lot of witch lore. But there isn't much witch lore at all from Rhode Island that I have seen. Any thoughts? Maybe I have just missed some sources.

Very interesting about the cemetery distribution!

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally (or perhaps not, given the season), the current New Yorker also has an article discussing the origins of Thanksgiving.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Rhode Island stood somewhat apart from the rest of New England in everything pertaining to witches. Its colonial lawbooks simply reprinted the most recent English statute against witchcraft, without any reference to the Biblical "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) that was the basis of witchcraft law in the rest of New England.

The same sort of inexplicable every-day problems that provoked suspicions of witchcraft elsewhere in New England, in Rhode Island provoked instead suspicions of what we would now call "vampires" (not a word used there at that time). See Michael Bell's magnificent study "Food for the Dead" and his eventual follow-up, "The Vampire's Grasp."

Yet even Rhode Island did have folklore about witches and old-woman fortune tellers and spell casters (e.g., the famous Silvy Tory). It's just not very well known. One interesting study was done by Eidola Jean Bourgaize, "Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island" (URI MA thesis, 1956). You can find it online at

Peter Muise said...

Robert, I've read FOOD FOR THE DEAD (which is fantastic) but need to get the follow-up. Thank you for the link to Bourgaize's thesis too!

Anonymous, thanks for the link to the New Yorker article. It is indeed the season!

Robert Mathiesen said...

Bell's follow-up isn't quite ready to go to press yet, so he tells me. I am impatient to read it once it's out.